The Wonderful World of Cuisine: Chinese New Year
The Chinese Zodiac famously works by naming each year after a different animal from a cycle of twelve. According to legend, the years were named according to the order in which the animals were able to cross a fast flowing river.
The story goes that the rat managed to win the race and become the first sign of the zodiac by riding across the river on the back of a strong ox and jumping to the shore first, but he knocked his friend the cat into the water on the way. Because the rat accidently cheated the cat out of a chance to have a year named after him, rats and cats have been enemies ever since.
31st of January 2014 is the beginning of the year of the horse, the seventh sign of the zodiac. Celebrations for Chinese New Year or ‘The Spring Festival’ usually last for about two weeks. There are loads of traditions designed to bring good luck surrounding the Chinese New Year, including painting windowsills and door frames red or orange, traditionally lucky colours.
Of course, what we’re most interested in is the food. All the traditional foods eaten at Chinese New Year have a symbolic meaning and vary from region to region. In the north, families make dumplings called Jiaozi which are shaped to resemble Sycee, an old form of currency in China. This is meant to symbolise wealth and prosperity for the coming year. In the South, people make Tangyuan (rice balls with sweet red bean fillings), to represent the importance of family sticking together.
A traditional steamed pudding called Nian Gao is another food often made at Chinese New Year as an offering to the kitchen god, who watches over the household’s behaviour. However, because the kitchen god has a sweet tooth, some households simply smother his effigy in honey as an offering instead!
Nian Gao is traditionally made without eggs or butter and uses gluten-free sweet rice flour and special Chinese brown sugar which is made from unrefined cane sugar. Dates, almond essence and sesame seeds are all popular flavours.
If you’re not celebrating any other way, be sure to pack a tangerine into the kid’s packed lunch. They’re really seasonal and are traditionally given to children in China for good luck at this time of year.
Xīnnián hǎo! (That means ‘Happy New Year’!)