From Turin, Milan and Rome here in Italy to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, in compliance with the Old Lunar Calendar, the Chinese community is preparing to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, or Chunjie, which, on the night of January 31 will herald in a fortnight’s feasting. Also known as the Feast of Spring, Chunjie was and is the most widely celebrated festival in China. It is, at one and the same time, a moment of great domestic conviviality and a period of purification of the spirit and renewed fertility of the soil, hence an auspicious event for peasants.
Like Christmas for Christians, this is the time when Chinese families meet to exchange presents: the best quality teas from the most recent harvest and exotic fruits, and, among the nouveaux riches, other goodies such as swallow’s nests— indispensable for preparing the traditional soup— shark fins or abalone. In rural areas, live poultry and cooked dishes are also very much appreciated.
Some years ago, about three and a half million fresh and frozen chickens, a million ducks and huge amounts of lamb, beef and pork were sold in the city of Beijing alone during the period of the Chinese New Year!
In the olden days, foodstuffs had both a practical and a symbolic value. They signified that the giver wasn’t devoid of the necessities of life and wanted to share his abundance with his loved ones. The New Year celebrations also offer an opportunity to get together round the table to feed the living, the dead and the gods. In 1959, the newspapers printed an official order banning people from honoring the ‘God of the Kitchen’. In his place they were asked to hang pictures of workers, peasants and good harvests. According to tradition, the ‘God of the Kitchen’ ascends to heaven in this period to recount the vices and virtues of all the members of the family clan of the Emperor of Jade. It is thus advisable to offer the best foods: sweetmeats to mollify him, glutinous rice batter to fur his palate and stop him chattering and wine to affect his capacity of judgment.
The Feast of Spring was observed regardless during the Cultural Revolution, albeit with some differences. Since it was impossible to buy images of the ‘God of the Kitchen’, people would paint their own paper streamers and hang them up in secret. In every house they set up altars to commemorate the dead and, when incense was banned too, they burnt top-quality cigarettes and offered votive fruits and foods.
At New Year, great quantities of traditional food were cooked two or three days in advance to last for the duration of the feasting. This was due to the fact that no knives or other sharp objects could be used in the first days of the New Year for fear that they would ‘cut’ good luck. Woe betide you if you cut the ‘dragon’s moustaches’ the long spaghetti, ‘hand-pulled’ according to the tradition of Shanghai, that are a symbol of longevity.
Ravioli (jiao zi) are a ‘must’ in Northern China—their various fillings a symbol of newness and abundance for the new year—together with meat-filled steamed corn bread (mantou). Another classic is nian gao, rice dumplings sautéed with vegetables, the name of which corresponds to the greeting ‘Happy New Year’.
In Southern China, the typical dishes were a sweet pudding of steamed glutinous rice and zongzi, rice dumplings, another popular delicacy. If the family had the means to do so, it would add candied fruits, copper coins, peanuts, dates and chestnuts to the filling of some of the ravioli, while wealthy families would even put in gold, silver and precious stones. Obviously finding one of these ravioli in your bowl was considered a lucky omen. Peanuts symbolized long life, dates and chestnuts announced the imminent arrival of a child (in the Chinese the words ‘date’, “soon’ and ’chestnut’ and the phrase ‘arrival of a child’ sound the same).
In many houses, a large fish is placed on the table to symbolize the unity of the family in accordance with the popular saying ‘Nian nian you yu’, or ‘Every year there’s abundance’ (‘yu’ in Chinese meaning both fish and abundance).
In the third millennium, China’s old traditions are changing rapidly; nowadays the old ways survive only in the countryside, whereas in the large metropolises the drive towards consumerism risks erasing the habits and customs of thousands of years.
For tourists in Italy keen to sample some of the specialties listed above, the following restaurants serve traditional Chunjie menus.
Corso Racconigi 30 bis
La Via della Seta
Corso Casale 160/g
Via Schiapparelli 5
Via Lazzaretto 10
via Sicilia 45-49
via Barberini 57
Chef Kumalé is thenom de plume of Vittorio Castellari, an expert on ethnic food
Adapted by John Irving