New Year, better jiaozi
Updated: Mar 31, 2018
Mrs. Sung has a new kitchen-god.
The old one-he who has presided over the household this
twelvemonth-has returned to the Celestial Regions to
make his report.
Before she burned him Mrs. Sung smeared his mouth with
sugar; so that doubtless the report will be favorable.
Now she has a new god.
As she paid ten coppers for him, he is handsomely painted
and should be highly efficacious.
So there is rejoicing in the house of Mrs. Sung
- by Eunice Tietjens
Understanding Chinese traditions and culinary habits is all but an easy endeavour. In theory things looks simple, but scratch the surface and it starts getting complicated.
I wondered how a typical Chinese New Year dinner in a traditional Chinese household looks like. The only remotely similar experience we have had so far was our supper at the Holiday Inn Changbaishan, when we first arrived to China. The ballroom was huge, as was the flat screen –where videos of the New Year Gala were displayed for hours - and the stage where the host of the evening kept returning to wish everybody a Happy New Year or “Xin nian kuai le - 新年快乐” and other things in Chinese that we couldn’t understand. We were served a cold chicken, a tasteless soup, semi-decent dumplings and a steamed fish which we ate in its entirety – a faux pas apparently, since the fish is supposed to be left uneaten to make sure abundance reigns in the new year. I don’t think this evening brought us any closer to getting a glimpse at how the Spring Festival stuff works or understanding the “whys” of the customs surrounding it.
Special dishes, special dates
The Chinese New Year holiday is a rather complex festivity and preparations span over a month. The dates of the celebrations are set according to the Chinese lunar-solar calendar, an extremely elaborated time measurement machine. Since its origins during the Shang dynasty (1750-1040 B.C.), the calendar was employed to plan agricultural cycles, for divination and prognostication purposes and for setting the dates of religious and civil events. The Chinese New Year was the moment to honor the households, deities and ancestors and, up to nowadays, falls between January 21st and February 20th - on the second new moon after the winter solstice of the 24th day of the 12th lunar month. In 1912, China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar (first introduced by the Jesuit missionaries in 1582) and the festivity became known as Spring Festival since the New Year’s Day was set on January 1st as in the rest of the world.
The origin of the Chinese New Year is also associated with the legend of the monster “Nian”, who every New Year’s Day went from village to village devouring crops, livestock, villagers and children. Precautions needed to be taken to deal with such an evil creature. Nian was terrified of fire, loud noises and the red colour, so peasants, in order to protect themselves, lit firecrackers, hanged bright lanterns and wore red clothes and used red decorations in their households. Just to make sure, they also prepared sacrificial food that was left outside the door for Nian to eat, instead of feasting on people. This is the reason why on New Year’s Eve people say “guo nian” which has a double meaning: “to have survived the monster Nian”, and also, “to celebrate the New Year”.
The Laba Festival marks the prelude of the holiday season and is celebrated on the 8th day of the 12th month of the Chinese Calendar (la-name of the month, ba-eight). Originally, it was a time when sacrifices were made to ancestors and prayers were held for good harvest and health. The holiday is closely linked to Buddhism, since it marked Sakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment in India at the age of 35. On this day, people go to temples and lamaseries to enjoy a free bowl of Laba Congee, a tradition that began in the Song dynasty and further developed during the Qing dynasty, when local and central governments and Buddhist monasteries would prepare the gruel and offer it to those in need. Laba congee is a gruel that contains eight kinds of grains and cereals and 18 types of nuts and dried fruits. People also prepare Laba garlic (especially in northern China), by soaking garlic cloves in vinegar for twenty days. The garlic and the sauce are then eaten around Chinese New Year’s Eve together with the dumplings.
On the 23rd day of the 12th month, Chinese people celebrate the Little Chinese New Year. The holiday season is the time of the year when all the gods go back to Heaven to pay their respects to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang, 玉皇). One of the most important deities is the Kitchen God (Zao Shen 灶神; literally “stove god"), who oversees the moral character of each household. He returns to Heaven to report on the behavior of the family during the previous year, and as a result, the family is rewarded or punished accordingly. A lot of “bribery” goes on before the God’s departure. People burn fake money to pay for the “expenses of the trip” and give him an “extra something”, offer a sacrifice of sticky candy (zaotang, 灶糖) and smear honey on the God’s paper effigy to “sweeten” his words. The effigy is then burned and will not be replaced by a new one until New Year’s Eve. Firecrackers are lit to help the God speed up his journey to Heaven and couplets and paper-cuts from the previous Spring Festival are taken down. The zao tang is a popular festival snack, it is usually made of sticky malt and shaped into sticks or flattened into round pieces.
Between the Laba Festival and the Little New Year, families thoroughly clean their persons and dwellings, to get rid of all the bad energy or “inauspicious breaths” (huiqi，晦气) that had accumulated during the year and prepare the arrival of the new good luck.
On the 30th day or New Year’s Eve - the most important celebration of the season- the Kitchen God is welcomed back with food offerings and firecrackers. Lion dances are performed to scare the monster “Nian”, red envelopes are passed out to children and unmarried people, new couplets are pasted on the front door and knives are hidden in order to avoid bad luck. The extended family sits around the table and share a sumptuous meal, with dishes that are chosen due to their symbolic meaning or because their names in mandarin are homophones of auspicious words:
Steamed fish: the word for fish "yu, 鱼” is a homophone of "surplus" and "abundance" (余). People say “Nián nián yǒu yú - 年年有余”, which means "every year may you have abundance". The dish, which is served at the end of the supper, must be served whole to represent completeness and good fortune.
Sticky glutinous rice cakes: their name in Chinese is “nian gao”, which means “New Year’s cake”. People say “nián nián gāoshēng- 年年高升”, which means “stick with loved ones through thick and thin” or "every year may you rise up the ranks".
Black moss: a seaweed dish called “fa cai,发菜”, a homophone of "fa cai, 发财", which means “to prosper”.
Lettuce: in Chinese “shēngcài- 生菜” is a near homophonous to "shēng cái- 生財", which means "to make money".
Chicken: as with the fish, it must be served whole to symbolize family unity and togetherness.
Noodles: represent a long life
Oranges: symbolize wealth
Tangerines: represent good luck.
Shrimps: are a symbol of liveliness and happiness
Raw fish salad: represent good luck and prosperity
Whole roasted animals: symbolize fidelity.
During the days that follow, relatives and friends visit each other. Special dishes are prepared and snacks as watermelon seeds, sesame candy and fruits are offered as a symbol of fertility and long life. The 15th day of the first month (which is also the first day of full moon), people celebrate the Lantern Festival and with it, the end of the holiday period. On this day, people display and carry lanterns that symbolize the renewal of the sun's power in spring. The lanterns take different forms (vegetables, fruits, animals, fish, men, and other objects) and may have riddles that people try to solve. There are several legends associated with the origins of the Festival. According to one of them, the it all began in the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) as an appeal from the emperor to the God “Taiyi” (太一), who controlled the destiny of the human world, for fine weather and good fortune in the New Year. Another myth tells the story of how one villager killed one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite swans, generating the Emperor’s fury. Desiring revenge, the Emperor made plans to burn the village down. His daughter warned the villagers, who lit as many lanterns as possible to create the illusion that the town was already in flames. The trick worked, and the Emperor convinced that the village was being destroyed, finally retreated. On this day, “tāng yuán - 汤圆” - glutinous rice balls filled with sweet red bean paste, sesame paste, or peanut butter - are offered. The roundness of the tangyuan and the bowls they are eaten out of, emphasize unity and reunion.
Evidently, a lot of work and time goes into preparing everything for these celebrations. Literally, hundreds of millions of people wait the whole year to be able to return to their hometowns located sometimes thousands of kilometers away, in what has become known as the largest human migration in the world - “chunyun, 春运”. Experiencing these holidays first-hand can no-doubt be exciting, but at the same time puzzling and exhausting. Stores are super crowded, booking flights and hotels is almost impossible, rates run sometimes thrice the normal price and delays are not uncommon. I still remember watching the news, two years ago, and seeing images of thousands of people stuck in the Cantonese train station, unable to travel for days due to heavy snow on the railroads. As a result, and contradictory as it may sound, Chinese New Year is the only time of the year when we leave China. It does not mean, though, that we have given up on trying to taste better versions of the festive delicacies, in particular jiaozi.
What lies behind
Just as with the numerous elements of the holidays celebrations, there is nothing simple or casual about dumplings either. Very popular in the northern parts of China, they do appear in different versions across the country. Although their origins are not very clear, in China round stuffed dough pastries (bings) are traced to the Han Dynasty (206 BC– AD220). According to some sources, the jiaozi as we know the today - stuffed thin unleavened folded dumplings, with pleats in a semicircular shape with pointed edges - first appeared sometime during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). During the centuries, stuffed dough bites adopted different names and modalities, but eventually in time, “mantou” started being used to refer to unfilled loaves of steamed bread; “bing” for baked or steamed wheat cakes; “baozi” for thick-skinned filled dumplings and “jiaozi” for those thin-skinned.
As with other Chinese food items, the origins of the name jiaozi (餃子) are surrounded by legends. The ideogram for horn “jiao” (角) was initially used due to the visual form – the two pointed edges are reminiscent of two horns- but was later supplanted by “jiao” (餃), and the suffix zi (子) -meaning diminutive- was added; therefore becoming jiaozi (餃子). According to another theory, the name jiaozi (餃子) derives from jiao (交) a word that indicates an old year and new year crossing, and zi (子) that indicates the time at midnight; which is why the dish became a staple at the New Year’s Day table. The character zi (子) can also mean child, therefore dumplings suggest having a child and is an auspicious food eaten on special dates. The word jiaozi also makes reference to China’s first paper money made out of the bark of mulberry trees jiaozi (交子), invented in Chengdu during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Before that, people used iron coins, which weren't practical due to their weight. The first “jiaozi” were “exchange bills” or “IOUs” (I Owe You) that represented the promise of a merchant to pay the bills at a more convenient time in the future.
The crescient moon form of the jiaozi is reminiscent of the ancient Chinese gold ingots, which is why they symbolize wealth. Dumplings can also be stuffed with copper coins, pieces of gold or silver and even precious stones to suggest “a prosperous year ahead”. Some other fillings include peanut, since its Chinese name “sheng” also means life; jujubes “zao” and chesnuts “lizi” for auspiciousness, since their combined names in Chinese means early son “zaoizi”.
… and there were homemade dumplings
Back home, I told the cook girl to boil enough pots of water and to chop enough pork and vegetables to make a thousand dumplings, both steamed and boiled, with plenty of fresh ginger, good soy sauce, and sweet vinegar for dipping. Hulan helped me knead the flour and roll out the dough into small circles.
I admit I was at first impressed by her cooking skills. She worked fast, pushing hard against her rolling stick. She was able to roll out three skins for every two that I made. And she always grabbed just the right amount of meat filling to dab in the middle of the skin, never having to add a little more or take a little off. With one pinch, she closed the dumpling off.
The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan
If I had to express Xiaowen Ayi’s* efficiency and speed when preparing jiaozi, I would say, she is even faster and more skilful than Hulan. Aiming at achieving similar results on my first attempt, was naïve at best. The swift moves of the rolling stick and the exact sealing techniques are not easy to replicate, even more so when it goes hand in hand with trying to understand instructions and mumble responses in Chinese. Making dumplings is time-consuming and demands concentration, experience and dexterity. For each 5 beautiful, perfectly sealed identical dumplings Xiaowen produced, I managed to present one odd looking mutant-like bundle, each one completely different from the next one. Who made what, was apparent to the naked eye. It was not my proudest moment. Nevertheless, practice, obstinacy and observation of certain “golden” rules help. The results of the next attempts were more promising each time. The last time I even got a “hen hao” (very well) and “hen piaoliang” (very beautiful), compliments all the more valuable since they came from a woman of frugality with words. Hence, the “musts” for succulent dumplings are:
Homemade dough (the bought wrappers will be of even thickness and not thicker in the center and thinner on the outer part)
Cold water for boiled jiaozi (in order to withstand the pressures of boiling, these dumplings require thicker skins, which is made from cold-water dough)
Hot water for steamed and fried jiaozi (frying and steaming are gentler cooking techniques, so pan-fried and steamed dumplings require thinner skins made from hot-water dough)
The right meat (not too lean, it needs to have a little fat in order for the stuffing to be tender)
Addition of meat or vegetable stock for the filling (the liquid will make the meat more delicate and tasty)
Not changing directions when mixing the meat with the other ingredients (the stirring step should take around 15 minutes, I am not kidding, in this way the fat and protein will bind together and the stuffing will emulsify. Changing stirring directions will break the meat and make the stuffing watery)
Addition of vegetables at the end (the addition of salt to the stuffing can cause vegetables to release water, we want to prevent the stuffing getting soggy, so we add the salt to the vegetables in a separate bowl and eliminate the released liquid. Also, the addition of the vegetables at the end, particularly greens, will preserve their color after cooking)
Perfectly sealed dough, 11 times pressed jiaozi (I have never nailed this step).
Presentation (avoiding mutant-size odd-looking dumplings)
Size matters (bite size jiaozi that can be eaten in one attempt are perfect, in this way the stuffing will not fall and we will not have troubles picking up the pieces of the open dough)
It all seemed overwhelming to me at first and many may wonder “Is it not easier to just go out and eat dumplings in a restaurant?” The answer is “No”, and here is why. Homemade dumplings just taste better, since we use the best ingredients out there. My husband is THE reason why I attempted this project in the first place. He loves jiaozi probably as much as he loves Polish blueberry pierogi. Yes, blueberry pierogi are a real thing, and contrary to what many may believe, they are a main dish – and not a desert. Back to the part where I wondered how a “traditional” Chinese New Year’s Eve celebration looks like, I think we got lucky this year. We will not be in China but will spend it in a tropical paradise, together with good friends, most of whom are Chinese. With a few other thousands of Chinese nationals (all spending the holidays in this island as well), chances we will have some nice Spring Festival dishes are high. Maybe we will even get to eat some fresh fish and jiaozi? Wealth and abundance cannot be overrated, so I hope somebody remembers to throw a peanut or a coin in one of our dumplings, you know, just to make sure we will be blessed this year.
* Ayi (阿姨) - in chinese "aunt", a polite term used to refer to the nanny or to the women hired to clean houses.