Orla Keaveney introduces us to the culinary traditions of Chinese New Year.
THE Chinese year of the Rooster started on the 28th of January. Although most Irish people are familiar with the parades and fireworks, most people will know little about how individuals mark the occasion in China. Few realise how significant the holiday is compared to our New Year celebrations, with many Chinese expats travelling home from around the globe to share the festivities with their friends and family.
Similar to Christmas in western countries, sharing a meal on the last day of the year with loved ones is a central aspect of Chinese New Year – it’s often referred to as the “return dinner”. However, the food eaten on the day isn’t as synonymous with the holiday as turkey or Brussels sprouts. Traditions vary depending on region and individual habits.
For instance, in northern China, dumplings are the centrepiece of most meals, but are rarely served at New Year in the south. Meanwhile, Niango, a cake made of glutinous rice with sugar, is popular only in Eastern China.
The symbolism of certain foods often dictates how they should be prepared and eaten. For example, the Chinese word for fish, pronounced “yoo”, sounds very similar to the word for “surplus”, so it has strong associations with prosperity and luck. Many Chinese families prepare catfish or carp on the last day of the year, and serve it at the end of the meal so that the tail and head will be leftovers. That way, on New Year’s Day, the rest of the fish can be eaten, representing hopes that the family will have more than they need for the coming year.
While the method of cooking varies, the positioning of the fish on the table is significant – the head of the fish must be directed towards the elders or guests as a sign of respect, and the two who sit at the head and tail of the fish drink together for good luck. However, like many western customs such as Christmas trees or Easter eggs, these traditions are light-hearted and usually joked about, rather than taken as hard-and-fast rules.
There are also customs for things you shouldn’t do on New Year’s Day, such as eating porridge (which is said to bring poverty) or washing your hair or clothes (for fear of “washing away” good luck). It’s also customary for married women to visit their parents only on the second day of the New Year, as doing so on the first day is thought to bring misfortune.
If you’re interested in trying out a popular New Year’s dish, dumplings are an authentic Chinese meal that doesn’t differ too drastically from the westernised Chinese food we are used to in Ireland – they are also said to bring good luck!
(Recipe credit – chinahighlights.com)
Ingredients: 600g wheat flour, 400g ground pork, 100g Chinese cabbage, 2 eggs, some ginger, green onion and garlic, 5–10g salt, 20g soy sauce, sugar, cooking wine, sesame oil, chicken powder
- To make the wrapping, put the wheat flour in a basin. Add some salt and mix evenly. Pour water in the centre of the flour. Knead and stir the flour into dough. Cover the dough with a wet cloth for about half an hour.
- Sprinkle some flour onto a board and place the dough on the board. Knead the dough into a long strip and cut it into dumpling-skin-size pieces, and roll each small piece flat with a rolling pin to make the dumpling wrappers. Stack the wrappers aside, sprinkling some flour on each to prevent them from sticking together.
- For the filling, clean and mince the pork and cabbage, and mix with salt, cooking wine, chicken powder, sugar, eggs, and some water, and stir them evenly.
- Put a spoon of filling into the centre of each wrapper, fold over and pinch the wrapper edge together hard to seal the contents (try to give a “pleated” edge, as flat junctions may bring you poverty!)
- For the dipping sauce mix starch, boiled water, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil, then add the sliced ginger and garlic to an oiled wok. Stir-fry them until the fragrance is released. Add the starchy sauce to the wok and bring to the boil. Add the chopped green onions and stir-fry quickly to finish.
- Boil some water, and add the dumplings one by one. While boiling the dumplings, stir them to prevent them from sticking together or to the pot. When the water boils again, add a small cup of water. Cover and repeat twice more, then drain the dumplings and serve them in a dish.
- Presentation is key to ensuring good luck – ensure the dumplings are served in even lines, as circles represent an aimless and repetitive life. You can even thread a white string on one dumpling, and whoever gets this one will live well into old age.