Read the table, it will tell you of luck and family and even predict fortunes. With Chinese New Year celebrations beginning this week, dinner tables around the world will be laid with intricate banquets, each dish heavy with symbolism and each ingredient wrapped in significance.
While January 1 is easy enough to remember, Chinese New Year always falls on a different date. Like all Chinese festivals, it is determined by the lunar/solar calendar rather than the Western (Gregorian) calendar. The Year of the Horse or 4701 on the Chinese calendar, will begin on February 12.
New Year, also referred to as the Spring Festival, celebrates the earth coming back to life, new beginnings and good luck for the future. Festivities last for 15 days culminating in the ‘Lantern Festival’. It’s a time for families to come together, an opportunity to bury the past and look to the future.
As with any festival, but particularly so with this one, food is central to the celebrations.
‘Chinese New Year is like a combination of Thanksgiving and Easter that celebrates the sacredness of the family and presents a time of renewal,’ says Grace Young, author of Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
Vast banquets for family and friends mark the celebrations. Preparations begin in the last few days of the last moon, a month from the date of the Chinese New Year. Houses are cleaned top to bottom (to sweep away traces of bad luck), debts are paid, hair is cut and new clothes and presents are bought. Doors and windows are then decorated with paper cuts and couplets printed with themes of happiness, wealth and longevity.
As mentioned, every dish of the New Year feast holds auspicious meaning and is believed to directly affect one’s fortune for the coming year, so preparations and the sourcing of ingredients is carefully orchestrated.
Ingredients draw their symbolism either from the appearance of a food or the way the Chinese word for it sounds. Noodles for example represent long life, serving a whole chicken symbolizes family togetherness, oranges signify gold, lotus seeds apparently promote male offspring and fatt choi, black fungus, brings good luck.
Other foods appear on the table thanks to their phonetic attributes, achieving special significance because of the way their Chinese name sounds. For example, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like ‘rising fortune’, so it is common to serve a lettuce wrap filled with other lucky foods. Tangerines are much in evidence as the word for tangerine is similar to the one for luck and pomelos are also popular for signifying abundance as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the verb ‘to have’.
Dishes are placed on the table all together so guests can dip into whichever they please, and there are always an equal number of dishes to people, plus one extra just in case stocks run low.
While puddings are not widely eaten in China, the main meal is often followed with bowls of brightly colored sweets and sometimes the ‘tray of togetherness,’ a platter piled with dried fruit, sour prunes (for digestion), kuaci seeds (dried melon seeds symbolizing joy, happiness, truth and sincerity) and candied melon (for growth and god health). A cup of oolong or chrysanthemum tea rounds off the meal.
A particular food ritual observed throughout China at New Year is the making and eating of cakes both sweet and savory. Usually made from rice flour, symbolizing cohesiveness, the cakes are formed into a round shape to represent family unity. A slightly raised center indicates rising fortune. After steaming (rather than baking), they are cooled, cut into small pieces, pan-fried and often served with oyster sauce (a dense, syrupy seafood based condiment). Cakes are eaten for breakfast and presented whenever guests visit.
New Year Cake, neen gow, is a dense, glutinous steamed arrangement representing the sweetness of life. Made with peen tong, a traditional Chinese brown candy, the egg-dipped, fried portions have a mellow sweetness. This is the most symbolic cake of the celebrations, prepared only in February. Turnip Cake, law bock gow, is served on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity and rising fortune. The texture of savory cakes such as this and Taro Root Cake is similar to polenta. The savory Taro Root Cake, woo tul gow is made using dried scallops, bacon, and mushrooms.
New Year is also a time to appease the omnipresent Kitchen God, Tsao Chun, effigies of whom are found hanging above the stove of many Chinese homes. Throughout the year Tsao Chun watches over the domestic affairs of the house and ascends to heaven a week before the first day of the New Year to make an annual report of the behavior of each family member. A negative report could mean bad luck for the next twelve months so many households try to appease him by smearing sugar or honey over his lips so he might say only sweet things to the Jade Emperor. In the days before New Year, it is customary to present the Kitchen god with a sticky, dense fruit cake, interpreted by some as a simple bribe and by others as a means to ensure Tsao Chun’s mouth will be too full to speak ill of the family.
Steamed Chinese Fruitcake
1 tablespoon flour
2 eggs, with whites and yolks separated
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups glutinous rice flour
1/3 cup milk
1 cup Chinese dried fruits, pitted if necessary and diced
1 piece crystallized ginger, diced (optional)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Grease a loaf pan that is approximately 4 x 8 inches and set aside.
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Cream together the butter and the sugar. Add the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Add one-third (a little less than 1/2 cup) of the glutinous rice flour and mix. Add about half of the milk. Continue adding the rice flour and the milk alternately until the entire amount is mixed in.
Stir in whichever fruits you are using and then add the beaten egg whites, folding them into the cake batter.
Pour the cake batter into the loaf pan and steam, covered, for about one hour. Allow to cool and cut into thin slices.
Recipe is adapted from Chinese Cooking Secrets, by Karen Lee
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team