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Foods and Festivities

Zongzi (rice dumpling) Dumplings are a kind of folk food with a long history, and are loved by the common people. Just as the old saying goes, “Nothing tastes better than dumplings.” For a long time in the past, having a meal of dumplings sometimes meant improvement of life. As for the history of dumplings, we can use the term “age-old” to describe it. The earliest recorded history associated with dumplings is found from the Han Dynasty. In the 60’s of the 20th century, a wooden bowl was excavated from a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) tomb in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In the bowl were wholly preserved dumplings, thus are the oldest dumplings ever found as of today.

Since ancient times, there has been a whole set of customs associated with eating dumplings. Dumplings on the night of the Chinese New Year and the fifth day of the first month on the lunar calendar, as well as on the day of “high heat” (beginning of the solar term of the same name from mid to later part of every seventh lunar month) and the first day of winter (around the 22nd of the twelfth lunar month). Dumplings are the folk delicacy known to all, symbolizing union and festivity. For the Chinese, the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the counterpart of Christmas for Americans and Europeans. On this topmost important holiday, it matters not where a person is; as long as it is feasible, the loved ones in a far away land would rush back home to unite with family. Since the Ming and Qing dynasties, the folk custom of eating dumplings on Chinese New Year was already very popular. Especially in the North, until this very day, wrapping and having dumplings on Spring Festival is an indispensable feast activity for every family. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the whole family sits in a circle, kneading the dough, mixing the filling, rolling the wrap, wrapping, pinching, and boil the  dumplings, all the while having a good time. This meal of dumplings is different from all other dumpling feasts throughout the year. After the dumplings are made, people wait until the clock strikes midnight before eating them. This makes the dumplings the first meal of the year. The Chinese word for dumplings, jiaozi, has the meaning of bidding farewell to the past and welcoming the new.

Dumplings are a special kind of holiday food, and also a common home-cooked dish. It can be prepared by boiling, steaming and frying. But the stuffing is what differentiates the type of dumpling. When having dumplings at home, pork stuffing is the most typical, and can be mixed with any vegetable. Pork is minced, mixed with sesame oil, scallion, ginger, and soy sauce for marinade. Right before wrapping the stuffing, mix already-made minced or ground vegetables into the stuffing and then add salt. Some prefer minced lamb or beef, but the most refined stuffing would be the sanxian, or literally the “three fresh meats,” which is the combination of sea cucumber, shrimp and pork. To make a good dumpling, the wrapping is almost half the job. The amount of flour and water must be mixed in just the right portions, and the dough must be kneaded enough to achieve the best elasticity and best tenderness in the wrap. The wrap should be easily pressed together and must not be punctured easily. The cooked dumpling should be tender, juicy, and slippery with a tantalizing aroma after taking a bite.

Making dumplings is a time-consuming job. Therefore in recent years, already made dumpling wraps and stuffing are available on the market. Supermarkets supply cook-and-serve frozen dumplings in all kinds of flavors. Making and having dumplings has never been so easy.

In the southern part of China, the first meal of the New Year is usually not dumplings. Instead it would be stuffed glutinous rice balls, glutinous rice flour cake or noodles. China’s numerous minority nationalities also have the tradition of celebrating Chinese New Year, but with their own unique set of festival foods. The Hui people eat noodles and simmered meat on the first day of the first lunar month. The Yi people have “Tuo Tuo Meat” and drink “Zhuan Zhuan Wine.“ The Zhuang minority likes to have a large sticky rice cake that weighs more than 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). The Mongolian minority people gather around the fire to have boiled dumplings, but must leave lots of leftover wine and meat, only then will the coming year be full of prosperity.

The festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year will last for a half month, until the 15th day of the first lunar month when it is the Lantern Festival, another important holiday of the Chinese. On the night of the Lantern Festival will be the first full moon of the year. Festive decor and bright lights adorn the major streets and narrow alleyways. The people while guessing fun riddles placed inside beautiful lanterns, enjoy yuanxiao (glutinous stuffed rice balls in soup), the southerners call them tangyuan. The main ingredient of yuanxiao is sticky rice; being highly glutinous, one must chew it thoroughly and cannot eat too much all at once.

The types of yuanxiao and ways of eating them are numerous. In the north, mixed stuffing made from osmanthus, rose, bean paste or sesame seeds would be rolled around in dry flour, until the stuffing is covered entirely in flour, taking the shape of a round ball, thus the yuanxiao is made. Salty yuanxiao is however very rare. In the south, tangyuan is made by putting stuffing directly into already formed dough, with sweet, salty, meat and vegetarian flavors available.

On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the Dragon Boat Festival, zongzi, or glutinous rice cake wrapped in reed leaf is the festivity food. This custom is prevalent in all parts of China. The Dragon Boat Festival has had more than 2,000 years of history in China. By tradition, people place portraits of Zhongkui, the demon-chaser, on the doors and walls of their homes to ward off evil, and hang up mugwort leaves. Grown-ups enjoy yellow wine while children play with “fragrance bags,” used as protection charms. However, zongzi are had in both the south and the north, just with different flavors and shapes. The northern Chinese like to use jujubes, bean paste, preserved fruits and other sweet things as filling, coated with a thick layer of sticky rice and using reed leaves to wrap it into a triangular shape. In the south, there are also square and flat zongzi available. The fillings in the south are more abundant, with eggs and meats. There are sweet and salty flavors, each with its own satisfying tastes.

Second to the Spring Festival in importance and grandness is the Mid-autumn Festival, when people get together to have the moon cake. Like eating zongzi on the Dragon Boat Festival, or having tangyuan on the Lantern Festival, having moon cakes at Mid-autumn is a global Chinese tradition. Because of its round shape like that of the moon, the moon cake symbolizes union. Every Mid-autumn, when the bright round moon is hanging above, and all homes are united, people enjoy moon cakes while observing the moon and enjoying life. Moon cakes and zongzi are both considered desserts and not main meals. Even as such, moon cakes come in many flavors. There are over a dozen kinds including the five nuts, lotus seed paste, egg yolk, bean paste, crystal sugar, sesame seed, ham and more. They either taste sweet, salty, salty and sweet,  numb-hot, and soon. Traditional Beijing-style moon cakes are made similar to the sesame seed cake, where the outer crust is crispy and delicious. The Suzhou-style moon cake also has a crispy outer crust, and consists of many thin layers, soft and light, pleasing to the tongue. The Cantonese-style moon cake’s skin is similar to Western cakes, but its inner filling is the most famous. Not only this, modern packaging of moon cakes are becoming more and more refined and eye-catching.

Aside from “the big four” on the Chinese calendar of festivities, which hold the most importance, there also exist certain seasonal folk customs with very  interesting features. For example, in some areas, on the second day of the second lunar month, people eat Dragon Whiskers Noodles. On Pure and Bright Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day), lighting fire to cook food is a taboo and people should eat cold dishes. On Festival of the Dead Spirits, dough-made man and sheep figures are offered to ancestors. On Double Ninth Festival, huagao cakes are had to bless the elderly with long life. There are still many more interesting holiday diet customs.A New Year’s painting Celebrating the Lantern Festival portrays the festive scenes of igniting firecrackers and making yuanxiao (stuffed glutinous rice-balls) among Chinese people.

When it is once more near the end of the year, on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, people all around China have the tradition of eating laba porridge (rice porridge with beans, nuts and dried fruit), with slight variations in the making. Northerners prefer various kinds of rice and beans; southerners will add lotus roots, lotus seeds, water chestnuts and more. It matters not whether it is northern or southern style, red jujubes and chestnuts are a must. The Chinese word for jujube, zao, has the same pronunciation as the word meaning “early.” The word “chestnut” in Chinese, li, also sounds just like words for “power” or “strength.” With zao and li together, they imply the meaning of “putting in work and effort early in order to ensure a good harvest.” As living standards improve, porridge ingredients are becoming increasingly abundant and varied, including peach kernel, almond, sunflower seed, peanut, pine nut, brown sugar, grape and so on. Laba porridge is now even more delicious with more refinement and higher nutritional value. Top grade laba porridge has therapeutic effects ranging from benefiting the spleen, stimulating appetite, replenishing qi (chi), cleansing blood, fighting cold weather and more. It is a characteristic tonic food for the winter season.

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