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January 30, 2011

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New Year's feast of abundance spreads joy and hope for 2011

Chinese Lunar New Year is upon us and for those wondering how important the role of food is in this grand festival, the answer can be found in the famous Chinese opera "The White-Haired Girl." The plot begins when a poor farmer risks being caught by his landlord's debt collector to return home on New Year's Eve with one kilogram of flour to make jiaozi, a kind of Chinese dumpling with meat or vegetable stuffing, for his daughter.

Most of the customs around the festival are closely related to food and the Chinese love to eat profusely and abundantly during this celebratory period. As the Chinese believe the saying "rich start in spring, great harvest the whole year," it is common to exceed the typical daily shopping budget and serve expensive foods such as some fish and shrimps in large amounts to wish the coming year be one that is rich and prosperous.

New Year Snacks

Many housewives start their shopping well in advance to stock up on festive fare. Early purchases include treats such as chocolates and candies, and dried food which can be easily stored such as ham, scallops, pumpkin seeds and peanuts.

On the first and second day of the lunar month, relatives and friends are busy visiting each other, and these foods are offered to the guests.

I have fond memories from when I was 10 years old of visiting an aunt, not only because she always gave me a big hongbao, the monetary gifts in red envelopes, but because the snack box on her table was always filled with treats. These included White Rabbit Creamy Candy with its chewy texture, sweet taste and strong aroma of milk, and a liqueur chocolate made to look like a wine bottle and containing baijiu, so it had a strong aroma of spirits. After eating a few of these, my face would turn red and I'd feel slightly drunk.

New Year's Eve Dinner

As the most important meal during the 15-day festival, all family members finish work early and gather in the kitchen to prepare dinner together. In northern Chinese provinces, serving jiaozi is a must. In Shanghai, although it's so not necessary, the tradition is still prevalent among families with members from the north.

As my grandfather comes from Shandong, to the north of China, we continue to serve jiaozi each year. Everyone has a different task in the preparation process. My grandfather is responsible for rolling out the dough into a thin wrapper with a round shape while my grandmother prepares the stuffing. She has her own recipe which determines the seasonings added and the proportion of fat and meat being used. They both claim that their own part of the jiaozi-making is the most decisive, influencing the final flavor and texture. And this festive disagreement is an annual occurrence.

My parents are responsible for wrapping. Jiaozi can be wrapped into various shapes such as the moon, a gold ingot, fish and even a butterfly. My father is good at the moon shape and my mother is skilled enough to wrap it into the appearance of a fish. My contribution to the process is to covertly add chocolate or candy into the stuffing so when it is finally served, someone always asks "why is my jiaozi sweet?"

Niangao, a kind of Chinese dim sum made with glutinous rice, is another popular festive food more commonly known as "Chinese New Year Cake." Since 糕(gao) in Chinese is pronounced similarly to 高(gao) which means high, many Chinese serve niangao and hope for elevating themselves in the coming year.

We recommend three kinds of niangao that are available in Shanghai. The first is tiaotougao, which has a kind of rice paste wrapping with a red bean paste filling. The outside tastes glutinous but the inside is silky.

The other two are osmanthus gao and rose lard gao. Dried flowers with strong herbal aromas are added to the paste so the original over sweet flavor of gao is appropriately balanced.

Every year, a bowl of tangyuan (sometimes known as yuanxiao in north China, a kind of glutinous rice flour made with a sweet dim sum filling) is served after a meal.

The Chinese love tangyuan for several reasons. Firstly, its round appearance symbolizes wholeness and the reunion of the entire family. Secondly, since it is made from glutinous rice it has a sticky texture that symbolizes the close relationship of family members sticking together, especially in the face of difficulties. The final reason is its sweet taste, the result of its filling being commonly made with a paste mixing ground black sesame seeds, sugar and lard.

On gently biting tangyuan, the warm and silky stuffing slides across the palate with a sweet taste that will hopefully bring a sweet new year.

Although the Chinese New Year celebrations take place during the cold winter, the prosperity, happiness and intimacy conveyed by this food, together with the celebratory firecrackers, make people forget about the cutting winds and freezing temperatures.

Gao Zunsan (93 years old)
Profession: Retired
Q: Use three words to define Chinese Lunar New Year.
A: Happy, family and tradition.
Q: How do you spend your New Year's Eve?
A: Out dining with my children. I don't want them to be busy preparing dinner.
Q: What is your favorite Lunar New Year food?
A: Jiaozi with leek and pork stuffing.
Q: Your Chinese New Year wish.
A: Hoping everyone can be happy and China can be more prosperous.

Faye Gu (24 years old) Profession: TV editor
Q: Use three words to define Chinese Lunar New Year.
A: Reunion, lively, hongbao
Q: How do you spend your Lunar New Year's Eve?
A: Having dinner with my parents and grandparents and meeting my cousins since we haven't met with each other for a long time.
Q: What is your favorite Lunar New Year food?
A: Eight-treasure duck, a kind of steamed duck stuffing with eight kinds of delicacies; fried meat balls, a dish made of meat and glutinous rice which is very popular in Anhui Province.
Q: Your Chinese New Year wish.
A: 2011 is rabbit year, which is also my animal year. I hope I can be healthy and calm, also to perform well at work making high-quality TV programs.

Lulu Bao (24 years old)
Profession: Marketing
Q: Use three words to define Chinese Lunar New Year
A: Family, holiday, train (Chinese people now care more about train tickets rather than the weather!)
Q: How do you spend your Lunar New Year's Eve?
A: After the big dinner, we play mahjong with my grandma to deliberately lose some money to the older generation, in that way giving them a cash gift. It's our family tradition.
Q: What is your favorite Lunar New Year food?
A: Fried melon seed. It's my best accompaniment when watching TV.
Q: Your Chinese New Year wish
A: Get married in 2011.

Alice Wang (55 years old) Profession: Auditor
Q: Use three words to define Chinese Lunar New Year.
A: Lively, busy, relaxed
Q: How do you spend your New Year's Eve?
A: Out dining with my parents and close relatives. (I am quite busy so I don't have time for cooking)
Q: What is your favorite Lunar New Year food?
A: Niangao, because it's glutinous and sweet. I am addicted to dessert.
Q: Your Chinese New Year wish.
A: That my parents can be healthy, my daughter can meet her Mr Right and, myself, improving my personality and performing well at work.

Chen Qianru (24 years old) Profession: Postgraduate student
Q: Use three words to define Chinese Lunar New Year.
A: Fireworks, hongbao, visiting friends and relatives.
Q: How do you spend your Lunar New Year's Eve?
A: Having New Year's dinner with my parents and other close relatives. Watching fireworks and hearing firecrackers. Then I go shopping after my dinner.
Q: What is your favorite Lunar New Year food?
A: I hate niangao. Sweet Ningbo tangyuan with the red bean paste stuffing is my favorite.
Q: Your Chinese New Year wish.
A: Have good marks next term and great achievements in the coming year.


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