A quick exchange with my friend Anna on Twitter reminded me that a food blog was due, especially when everyone of Chinese/East Asian origin, as well as many other nationalities are consuming loads and loads of good food in the past week which will continue for at least another week, leading towards the final countdown of Da Nian (Big Celebration) on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.
In the West Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations usually come and go in a flash. At best, families and friends get together for a party or two, and a feast in the house or at a chosen restaurant. In big cities like London and Birmingham, festivities are held in China Towns with lion dances and sometimes street foods. In China and many other Asian countries, it’s a vastly different story. Millions of people make their way homebound, wherever that may be, or heading overseas for holidays.
Believe it or not, in the 30 years I’ve lived in the UK, I have only been back to China once for this auspicious occasion. It is partly my choice (not wanting to join the massive human migration within China), and partly the necessary and often unspoken sacrifice we all have to make as immigrants.
Anyway, I try and make the best of this special occasion whenever I can. I probably have had more than a fair share of throwing CNY parties, in Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, in my tiny bedsits, in share student accommodations, and at home. I hosted two small gatherings last weekend – see pictures below. In terms of quality and quantity of foods they may not compete with what people back home are feasting, but as far as I am concerned, the diners were happy and satisfied, and that was the point of a get together and it was enough for me.
I’m sharing a few CNY signature dishes I especially crave at this time of the year, and treats that people all over China would enjoy as they toast ‘ganbei’ with family and friends.
Sweet Sticky Rice Dumpling – Tang Yuan (湯圓)
This is one of my all time favourite foods. I remember that as a child, I eagerly awaited for the Spring Festival (CNY commonly referred in China). Even when food was scarce, and many Chinese people were starving, we had to have Tang Yuan, with or without fillings. As China got richer, the varieties become more spectacular.
In Sichuan, we’ve perfected our Tang Yuan over its long history. We filled the glutinous rice ball with delicious sesame, peanuts, sweet bean past, dates, scented osmanthus flowers and tangerine peels. If you ever visit Chengdu, you must try Lai Tang Yuan.
In Northern China, Tang Yuan is often called Yuan Xiao (元宵), and they tend to make it savory, with minced meat and seasonal vegetables.
Living in the UK, I used to make my own fillings, using peanut butter, chocolate sauce, various jam and roasted nuts. Nowadays, I’m more reliant on my local Chinese supermarket for ready-made Tang Yuan, with different fillings mentioned above. All I have to do was to boil them for a few minutes and there it is! If I can be bothered, as I often do, I’d add an egg, a few spoonful of sweet fermented rice (甜酒釀 ‘tian jiu niang’ or 醪糟 ‘lao zao’), and sprinkle a few goji berries. They are divine!
Chinese Dumplings (饺子)
Chines dumplings go back a very long time, with nearly 2000 year history, and loved by all Chinese people. I have shared my very own special spicy recipe on various social media, as they are a regular in our diet. If you have not seen any of them, click Making Chinese Dumplings for a video instructions which John made a number of years ago. I’ve also collected a number of yummy photos from friends this week for your visual consumption ;-).
Spring Roll (春卷 )
I am sure that many of you would have tasted this Chinese speciality in Chinese restaurants. Spring rolls are wrapped with either vegetables or meat, either sweet or savory. Having filled in spring roll with a flour pastry, you can either shallow or deep fry them, until golden. Naturally, its name came from Chinese New Year Celebration.
Glutinous Rice Cake 年糕 (Nian Gao)
In Chinese, Nian Gao sounds like “getting higher year after year”, which is seen as very lucky. Main ingredients of Nian Gao are sticky rice, sugar, Chestnuts, Chinese dates and lotus leaves. Again, there are regional variations in the recipes, and the most distinctive ones are Northern, Jiangnan (South of Yangtze River), Fujian, Taiwan and Cantonese. Even Japan and Korea have their own style Nian Gao.
In Chinese, fish (Yu) sounds like ‘save more’, and due to the Chinese nature of saving for the rainy days and especially towards the end of the year, so they can make more money the next year. Because of this, a fish dish is a must on any CNY banquet, no matter how it’s cooked.
There is a Chinese saying: 年年有余 (nien nien you yu) – May you always get more than you ever wish for!
The CNY treats do not stop here. As China’s economy soars year after year, and living standards continue to improve for the masses, more and more festive dishes are added to the banquet tables. Whatever you fancy, you can have them!
Apart from the continuous feasting, another tradition of CNY ‘hong bao’ (red packets, used to be small lucky money for children, now everyone with a smart phone and Chinese Bank Account) has had a major facelift with the help of 21st century technology. Tens of millions of people are handing out, and receiving billions of RMBs on the net, in their WeChat groups of family, friends, classmates, colleagues etc. Personally I am not a big fan of this modern phenomenon – I am a little sad to see how this kind of money-grabbing (literally) obsession makes many people losing sight of some of the proudest traditional values and cultural heritage we have.
If you want to see more of the kind of foods people enjoy, do pop over to YouTube where I’ve shared a number of videos of fabulous Sichuan cuisine including the HotPot, as well as Dim Sums further afield from Southern China: Celebrating Chinese New Year in Chengdu, Hong Kong and Guangzhou