The most important feature of the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is having abundant food. The gathering of the whole family for a banquet is the culmination of a year’s hard work. All people, whether they are workers, peasants, or office clerks, put money aside to have a spectacular meal.
In the past, the Spring Festival was the only time of year in which many people had the opportunity to eat all they could of exciting or expensive foods. However, this is already becoming a thing of the past.
With improved standards of living, choice food becomes affordable all year round. Therefore, people no longer display an insatiable craving for food during the Spring Festival.
Nonetheless, it is still important to include certain foods in the Spring Festivals meals, such as dumplings (jaozi), and New Year Cake, which not only satisfy the palate, but also symbolize the hope for a better and more abundant new year.
The family comes together
On New Year’s Eve, the whole family shares a hearty dinner. One dish is a whole fish. The Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for abundance.
It is important that the fish is served with the head and tail intact to ensure a good start and finish and to avoid bad luck throughout the year. It stands for togetherness and plentifulness. They share a Tray of Togetherness.
This dish holds eight sweet foods; each one has a special meaning for the New Year:
- Candied melon representing growth and good health;
- Red melon seeds, because the colour symbolizes joy, happiness and truth;
- Lychee nuts – close family ties;
- Kumquats – wealth;
- Coconut – togetherness;
- Peanuts signifying long life;
- Longans, said to bring many good sons;
- Lotus seeds attributed to fertility.
Long, uncut noodles are served, too. They stand for a long life. Some people think that cutting the noodles means cutting life short. For dessert, people eat niango.
That night, all the lights are kept on. At midnight, fireworks light up the sky and firecrackers explode. This scares away bad luck! These bright lights and loud noises are believed to fright away the old year and evil spirits.
Did you know? Firecrackers were once made from bamboo stems. The burning hollow stems make a loud sound as they split open. In the morning, each child receives a Lai-See envelope. It is a lucky red envelope with money inside.
Later that day, people visit relatives and friends.
People travel from all over China to be with their families on New Year’s Eve.
Another household member also returns on New Year’s Eve – the Kitchen God! The family hangs a new picture of him in the kitchen. People stay up very late on New Year’s Eve, feasting and visiting with family.
Heaps of sticky cakes and plump dumplings are eaten over the Spring Festival.
The vast farming areas of China produce an enormous variety of foods. These are made into favourite dishes at this time of year.
Preparing for a party
It takes a long time to prepare food for the long New Year festivities. In the south, heaps of rice grains are sorted and washed several days before the celebrations. This way, the job will be done in good time. The huge mounds of rice are too a symbol of hope for a good harvest next year.
Dates, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, melon seeds, lotus seeds and oranges are favourite snacks. The word used for each often sounds like a word meaning something lucky.
Duck, chicken and goose are favourite festive meats. But people are not just tucking in greedily. Meat and fish are also taken to shrines and offered to the gods and spirits.
On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in northern China, sweet dumplings are shaped like the golden shoes that were used as money in ancient China. If you are extra lucky, you could find a coin in your dumpling! Whoever gets a dumpling with a coin will have wealth in the New Year.
Typically, to make dumplings, dough is stuffed with seasoned meat, fish and cabbage, and then it is fried or boiled.
Meat and vegetables dishes are moreover served. In southern China, it is thought to be very lucky to eat lots of sticky cakes. Fruit is very popular at New Year, especially mandarins.Many people tuck into Won Ton soup at New Year.
Spring Rolls get their name because they are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year Celebration.
Making Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake)
In Chinese, Nian Gao sounds like "getting higher year by year". In Chinese people's mind, the higher you are, the more prosperous your business is.
“Nian gao means year cake, but gao sounds the same as the word for tall or high,”. Hence the cakes symbolize achieving new heights in the coming year.
2 cups brown sugar
3 cups glutinous rice four
2 ½ cups milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
½ cup chopped dates
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/3 vegetable oil
Cooking spray or a stick of butter/margarine
Preheat the oven 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lightly grease a tube or pan with cooking spray or a little butter (or margarine). In a large mixing bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar. Slowly stir in the rice flour and milk. Mix the ingredients until they are completely blended.
Next, slowly add the vanilla, dates, baking soda and vegetable oil. Pour the mixture into the greased pan and bake for fifty minutes.
Allow the cake to cool fifteen minutes before removing it from the pan. Finally, sprinkle the top with sesame seeds. Share with twelve to sixteen people while you welcome the New Year.
Be sure to follow directions about stirring in the ingredients, slowly. Nian Goa is a very dense cake, and this will keep extra air from getting into the mixture.
The eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which is usually the coldest month of the year, is commonly referred to as laba. After that day, it is not long until the Spring Festival and so preparations for the big celebration soon begin.
The custom of eating laba porridge on that particular day started roughly a thousand years ago. On the night of the seventh day of the twelfth lunar month, people begin the long process of making the laba porridge which needs to be simmered from midnight until well into the next morning.
Laba porridge can be sweet or salty and can contain a number of supplementary ingredients. Some laba porridges boast over twenty ingredients, such as red dates, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, pine nuts, longan meat, hazelnuts, grapes, gingko, water chestnuts, dried rose petals, red beans, and peanuts.
The more decorative varieties of laba porridge may contain nuts chiseled into the shape of an animal.
Old customs require that laba porridge be presented first to Gods and ancestors for sacrificial purposes before it is shared with friends and relatives (who must receive it before midday). Finally it is the family’s turn to eat.
This custom is often ignored and is now virtually non-existent in some big cities. It was believed that any leftover laba porridge was a good omen, as it suggested an annual surplus, and that giving away laba porridge to the poor was considered as a positive step in gaining good karma for the next world.
Eight-Treasure Pudding is a popular dessert to enjoy during the Spring Festival, and is usually made of sticky rice, red bean paste, sugar, and oil. The actual recipe can be custom-made, and it does not necessarily require eight ingredients as the name claims.
Shanghai Eight-Treasure Pudding, for instance, is made of longan meat, gingko, raisins, pine nuts, and melon seed meat; while its Chongqin counterpart includes lotus seeds, lily root, red dates, yiren (seed of Job’s tears), dried tangerines, gourd slices, and honeyed cherries.
Eight-Treasure Pudding is relatively easy to make. First rinse the sticky rice and soak it in water for 4-5 hours. Then strain the rice, spread it over the steamer covered with wet cloth, and steam it full blast uncovered until the rice turns the colour of jade.
After that, sprinkle on cold water to moisten the rice, and continue to steam it with the cover on for about five minutes until steam escapes from under the cover. Scoop the cooked sticky rice into a container and mix it evenly with sugar and lard, the amount of which depends on individual preferences.
Grease the sides of a big bowl and spread into the bowl the prepared ingredients, then add a layer of well mixed sticky rice, followed by a layer of red bean paste, and finally more rice until the bowl is full.
Place the finished product in the steamer for one more hour until the rice grains are fully expanded. Wait until the rice softens before turning the bowl upside down to empty the contents onto a plate, and then enjoy.
Eight-Treasure Pudding is colourful, sweet and delicious. However, remember not to eat too much Eight-Treasure Pudding as it can be hard to digest!