Xing Nian Kuai Le! Gong Xi Fa Cai!
I love Chinese New Year. In my family, it was the one major celebration we had, rolling together Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Western New Year. It was a time of gathering and celebration. On super special years, we'd even fly back to Taiwan to celebrate with extended family and relatives.
Chinese New Year began as a festival in honor of surviving the previous year. As legend has it, a fierce beast named Nian (Year) would come out every twelve months to ravage the Chinese countryside. Its favorite food was humans, who had no real defense against it. However, Nian was frightened by bright colors, loud noises, and red things. So at the end of the twelve month cycle, the people would decorate liberally using the color red, set off fireworks, and make a lot of noise in order to scare the monster away. A great feast was then held to celebrate surviving monster for another year. The phrase for celebrating the New Year, Guo Nian, literally means being passed over by the year.
Since my parents had decided to spend Chinese New Year in Taiwan this year, and since my siblings were busy studying for exams, Cat and I were on our own. I whipped up a big spread for the two of us for Chinese New Years Eve on Saturday. I thought I'd share some of the foods and traditions of my family with you.
The Chinese New Year feast is typically prepared during the late afternoon. As the sun begins to set, the table is laid with all kinds of delicious and symbolic delicacies, and the doors and windows of the house are thrown open to welcome good fortune. The family assembles in front of the table, dressed in finery with at least one red item of clothing, since red frightens away demons and malicious spirits.
Before the food can be eaten, however, it needs to be offered to our ancestors. Three cups of rice wine are poured; one in remembrance of the past, one in thanks for the present, and one in hope for the future. Three special sticks of incense are lit to be used in prayer to our ancestors. As the smoke from the incense rises to Heaven, it carries with it our fond wishes for those who went before us, our thanks for their blessing and protection, and our request that they continue to watch over us and intervene for us in the court of the Emperor of Heaven.
Once the prayer is done, the incense is stuck upright in a bowl of rice and left to burn. Rice is used since it's the most important staple grain in Chinese culture, and must be provided as part of the offering. It is believed that the spirits of our ancestors have followed the smoke from the incense back to partake in the New Year feast spiritually. While the incense burns down, the family waits in respectful silence. This time is traditionally used for memories of dear, departed relatives, and for personal introspection. Once the incense is finished burning, the festivities begin!
We've always celebrated the New Year with either Luo Buo Gao (Daikon Cake) or Yu Tou Gao (Taro Cake). This year, I went with the Luo Buo Gao, which is a savory, steamed cake made using shredded daikon, rice flour, Chinese sausage, and Chinese dried shrimp. The cake is cut into squares and fried before serving to give is a nice, crisp surface. If there's a symbolic meaning to these cakes, I'm not aware of it. It's just a family tradition. This Luo Buo Gao was purchased at Kawaii Bakery, a Taiwanese bakery near my office in Huntington Beach, and was particularly tasty.
A whole chicken, including the head and feet, is always served. The chicken represents complete prosperity for the entire family, and can not be cut. I picked this Jiang You Ji (Soy Sauce Chicken) up from the Sam Woo in Irvine. It's one of my favorite dishes.
Another traditional must have on the New Year table is a whole fish, including the head and tail. The fish represents abundance with a play on words from the phrase Nian nian you yu (Abundance throughout the year). The words for "abundance" and "fish" sound the same, so it's believed that if you eat fish during the New Year, you'll experience abundance throughout the year. I like to use shisamo (Japanese gravid smelt), which I lightly brush with rice bran oil and broil in the oven. I sprinkle the fish with sea salt before plating.
Dumplings are always eaten during the New Year for two reasons; the act of wrapping them is seen as similar to wrapping up luck and the finished product resembles ancient Chinese gold ingots. I've always gone with store-bought, since wrapping dumplings without family, read as "without slave labor", takes too long. The yellow dumplings have egg wrappers around a ground beef filling. The white dumplings have wrappers made from cuttlefish skin surrounding a filling of cuttlefish paste.
My family has traditionally enjoyed our dumplings cooked in a Chinese hot pot. For my cooking broth, I used a homemade beef stock, the recipe of which I'll post at a later date. I also included some thinly sliced beef rib eye to round out the flavor and noodles (not shown) for long life.
Long leafy greens are eaten to wish long life for a person's parents. The leaves should not be cut, since that would symbolize cutting short your parents' lives. This year, I decided to use Thai basil. The leaves were plucked whole from the stems placed in the hot pot, adding additional depth to the broth.
I also purchased meatballs for my hot pot. Meatballs symbolize happy reunions for the whole family, and the hope that all family members will be able to meet again for the next New Year. This is another mainstay of my family's New Year's feast and particularly poignant for me, since my family was scattered this year.
Mushrooms are believed to help fulfill the good wishes of the diner, which is why I include them in my hot pot. My family usually gets enokitake mushrooms. This year, I bought giant shimeiji mushrooms because Cat thought they'd be fun to eat. They were, although they were really meaty. I also included limes to be used in flavoring the broth, and for the reasons listed in the next section.
Citrus fruits are always included in the meal, since it's believed that they bring luck. As with the oranges on my table, they'll often be provided in groupings of eight, since the Cantonese word for "eight" has the exact same sound as the word for "prosperity". The citrus fruits therefore represent luck and prosperity for the family, and are eaten near the end of the meal.
A traditional New Year dessert is the Nian Gao (Sticky Cake), which is a sweet, steamed cake made with rice flour. As with the daikon cake, the Nian Gao is sliced into blocks and fried to crisp the outside and soften the inside before eating. This one contained red dates, which symbolize early prosperity and all good things. I picked it up from the Champion Foods in Irvine. It had been made the night before, and was delightful.
Another traditional New Year dessert is Ba Bao Fan (Eight Treasures Rice), which is a sweet rice dish made with glutinous rice and topped with eight different symbolic delicacies. This store-bought one had a red date for early prosperity, candied tangerine peels for luck, candied coconut for togetherness, candied kumquats for gold, longans for many sons, lotus seeds for children, red bean paste for luck, and lychees for a strong family tree.
After the meal, tea is served and diners pick from a selection of candied snacks. The meal always ends with these sweets in the hopes that the family will have a sweet year. The snack trays are always store-bought, since making the snacks is a long, involved process.
But what about the evil monster? Well, fireworks aren't allowed in Irvine, so this was the best I could do. Take that, Nian!
I hope you all enjoyed reading about some of my family's traditional eats for the Chinese New Year. Once again, have a happy New Year!