This year the New Year coincides closely with the January 20th inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president of the United States – a hope for change and renewal in the United States.
In the Far East, the lunar New Year is a serious celebration with much feasting and socializing. Millions of Chinese will be traveling to be with family and loved ones during this most auspicious and important celebration.
As opposed to common thought, it is not a time to be a tourist in China. Offices, stores, factories – practically everything – will be closed and at a standstill. It will be almost impossible to get train or air tickets because they will have been sold out long in anticipation of the New Year.
In China, as with all Chinese celebrations, food plays a central role in the New Year festivities. Of course my childhood memories of red envelopes with “lucky” money was anticipated and enjoyed, but my strongest memories are of the special foods my mother prepared for the New Year.
My Favorite New Year Foods
Two dishes spring to mind – sweet glutinous rice cakes called nian gao and Beijing style boiled dumplings called, jiao zi.
You can find ready-made Cantonese style nian gao at most Asian markets during the Chinese New Year, but I’ve yet to find the Shanghai style nian gao my mother used to make flavored with fragrant sweet olive flowers.
Nian gao is literally translated as “sticky cake”. The words are homonyms for “Year High” - in others words - a great year to come. A high year means you will have good fortune throughout the year and the stickiness symbolizes the sticking together of the family.
Cantonese nian gao is made with the same glutinous rice flour and water, but sweetened with brown sugar and sometimes garnished with Chinese dates, known as jujubes. As a child I used to call nian gao “glue” because of its extraordinarily sticky and elastic texture.
Shanghai nian gao vs. Ningbo nian gao
Don’t confuse my mother's sweet Shanghai style nian gao with Ningbo nian gao (Sometimes also called Shanghai nian gao.) Although made from the same glutinous rice, Ningbo nian gao have a much more dense and firm texture (although still sticky and chewy when cooked). Ningbo nian gao looks like a flat, narrow white slab. It's sliced and usually sold in this country frozen in 2-pound bags. Frozen Ningbo nian gao is available in most Asian markets and the slices can be cooked into a savory or sweet dish. If you’d like to know more about Ningbo nian gao let me know.
The special feature of my mother’s nian gao are the candied sweet olive flowers (a.k.a. osmanthus), which we call gui hua in Chinese.
People from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces flavor their New Year cakes with these flowers, much the way Westerners would use vanilla. Sweet olive flowers come from the Osmanthus fragrans tree which is related to the laurel. These trees grow in mass profusion in Guilin (named after the trees) and Hangzhou along the beautiful West Lake. Hangzhou is famous for the high quality of their sweet olive flowers. In October the tiny flowers – only about ¼ inch long – are harvested. I was in Hangzhou once for the harvest and the whole city was drunk with the heady fragrance of the flowers. It’s an olfactory experience one never forgets. I found it most interesting watching the harvest of these tiny blossoms. The harvesters walk around the city with long bamboo poles. They spread large cotton sheets under the tree and slap the tree branches with the poles to make the flowers drop. All the flowers are collected in large wooden wheelbarrows and taken away for processing into sugar, candies, liquors, tea, etc. For more information on the Osmanthus fragrans tree, check out this link: http://www.trax2.com/info/factsheets/osmanthus.html.
Whenever I visit Hangzhou to see my one of my first cousins I always come home with many packets of sweet olive sugar for myself and as gifts. They keep a long time. In fact, I have a jar of sweet olive sugar (complete with the blossoms) from 1997 and it’s still good and still fragrant!
My second favorite New Year food is the Beijing jiao zi (more commonly known in this country as potstickers). Not as popular as the pan fried version, these pork filled dumplings are called jiao zi when they are boiled (the preferred cooking method to the Chinese). When the dumplings are pan fried they are called guo tie or literally, pot stick, because they tend to stick to the pot when fried.
The tradition in China is for the family to get together and make loads of jiao zi for the main meal of the day. In my family we used to count how many we could eat and announce that number at the end of the meal. My mother was born in Beijing so this Northern tradition of making and eating jiao zi remained a strong ritual in our home.
Most people don’t make their own dumpling skins anymore because it’s so easy to buy them in Asian markets. Get the ones that are round, not square. And a plastic dumpling press really helps to get the production line going. In fact, one of my first cousins who lives in the U.S. (I have over 30 first cousins, some in the U.S., but most are still in China ) has a supply of the plastic presses in her kitchen for just such a New Year’s tradition. She loves to use that press! (To find out more about the press, check out www.helensasiankitchen.com. Available in most kitchen and houseware shops near you!)
The nian gao and jiao zi recipes are given in memory of my mother and father. I hope you enjoy them. GONG XI FA CAI! May you have a happy, healthy and successful New Year. HAPPY NEW YEAR! - HELEN CHEN
Copyright© 2009 by Helen Chen. All Rights Reserved.
Helen's Asian Kitchen is not affiliated with Joyce Chen Products.