This year, according to the Chinese almanac is the Year of the Dog. This particular Year of the Dog is the year of the brown earth dog, brown being a color associated with earth. There are a lot of customs associated with the days of a traditional Chinese New Year. Most people are familiar with the use of firecrackers and many have seen the public dragon dances. We are far from any Chinese community now and the cats do not like firecrackers, so we focus on the aspects of New Year that have to do with cleaning and food for bringing in good luck and prosperity. Even cats want good luck, health and prosperity.
As with many other traditions and holidays the Chinese give the house a very thorough cleaning just before the two week New Year celebrations begin. Out with the dirt goes that bad luck and your house is open and welcome for new good luck to come in. Even if you scoff at superstition and the idea of good or bad luck, most people like a clean house and I think there is a kind of positive subconscious programming in this kind of ritual. So I do a thorough cleaning, too. I also made sure I had a haircut before the New Year. Traditionally, you shouldn’t cut hair during the New Year, you might cut off your luck.You have to do it ahaed of time. The lousy plumbing in my house has made the water damaging to my hair even with a filtered shower head. So going for a haircut is a good custom for me and is the first step toward healthier hair in the new year.
There are special,activities for almost every day of the two weeks of the entire Chinese celebration. I don’t have the relatives some days are dedicated to, like the day for son-in-laws. But there are some I do make a point of observing. On the 5th day businesses open and it is the day to welcome the God of Wealth. Traditionally the lion dance teams would go to the business district streets and parade in the hopes businesses would ask them to perform a dance to bring prosperity and reward them with a red envelope.The first transaction of the day should be a successful one to bring in good business for the rest of the year. This cannot be done with internet businesses and there is no lion dance team in my town but I made a special point to honor the God of Wealth so I can grow my business his year. There are many versions of the God of Wealth , known in general as Cai Shen or Tsai Shen. Any and all of them can be given offerings on this day.
No Chinese celebration would be complete without a major focus on food. Eating and displaying tangerines and oranges is believed to bring good luck and fortune due to their pronunciation, and even writing. The Chinese for orange (and tangerine) is 橙 (chéng /chnng/), which sounds the same as the Chinese for ‘success’ (成). One of the ways of writing tangerine (桔 jú /jyoo/) contains the Chinese character for luck (吉 jí /jee/). Eating pomeloes, another citrus native to South and Southeast Asia is also thought to bring continuous prosperity. The more you eat, the more wealth it will bring, as the traditional saying goes. The Chinese for pomelo (柚 yòu /yo/) sounds like ‘to have’ (有 yǒu), except for the tone, and exactly like ‘again’ (又 yòu).
For the big dinner there are some classic requirements. You may not have all but you should have a few. The lucky seven dishes are:
Fish (usually a whole fish) In Chinese, “fish” (鱼 Yú /yoo/) sounds like ‘surplus’. Chinese people always like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they think if they have managed to save something at the end of the year, then they can make more in the next year.
Noodles The noodles for New Year are known as. Longevity noodles (长寿面 Chángshòu Miàn /chung-show myen/) and unsurprisingly symbolize a wish for longevity. They are meant to be symbolic of the eater’s life. They are longer than normal noodles and uncut, either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.
Sweet rice balls 汤圆 (Tāngyuán ) is the main food for the Lantern Festival, however, in south China, people eat them throughout the Spring Festival. The pronunciation and round shape of tangyuan are associated with reunion and being together, so they really do fit with New Year celebrations.
Glutinous rice cake 年糕 (Niángāo) sounds like it means “‘getting higher year-on- by year”‘ in Chinese. To Chinese people’s thinking, this means the higher you advance in your studies, career or business, the more your life will improve. The main ingredients of niangao are sticky rice, sugar, and water but people use different things like chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves to add flavor. Some of these additions also add a healthy touch to what is really not a health food as well as being tasty.
Spring rolls 春卷 (Chūnjuǎn) get their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival. It is a dish especially popular in East China. Spring rolls are a Cantonese dim sum dish of cylindrical-shaped rolls filled with vegetables, meat, or something sweet. Fillings are wrapped in thin dough wrappers, then fried, when the spring rolls are given their golden-yellow color.
Dumplings. There are so many kinds of dumplings in China but for New Year people eat a certain kind. With a history of more than 1,800 years, these dumplings 饺子 (Jiǎdzi) are a classic Chinese food, and traditional for the New Year’s Eve banquet. They are most popular in North China. They can be made to look like Chinese silver ingots (which are not bars, but boat-shaped, oval, and turned up at the two ends). Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year.
So now you can make your own New Year’s Eve banquet. Since it is easy to make I give a basic recipe for the niángāo and you can add some of those healthy flavorings so you won’t feel so guilty. Not everyone has the time or the helpers to do the banquet but you can at least have a once a year treat. I looked at a lot of recipes and adapted this a little from this food blog. No one else gave as many ways to prepare it, or described making it with banana leaves, She even has a pressure cooker version, but the post was getting a little long. That would save you from hours of steaming, you might want to check it out on What to Cook Today.
- 600 grams glutinous rice flour (not hard to find – in my small town Target)
- 600 ml water
- 500 grams light or dark brown sugar
- 4-5 long sheets of banana leaves if frozen thawed first (in Asian and many Latino markets)
Blanch the banana leaves in hot boiling water for about 5 minutes to soften it. Then pat dry and set aside
Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer or until sugar is melted. Remove from the heat and let it cool down a little bit
Gradually stir in the glutinous rice flour into the sugar mixture. Stir to mix until they are smooth. You should have a brown color batter or tan if you use light brown sugar. Strain this batter into a container where you can easily strain the batter later if you see any lumps
Traditional Steamer Method:
Prepare the steamer by bringing the water to a rolling boil. Cut the banana leaves into strips. Line the container with the strips first horizontally and then vertically, overlapping at the bottom of the dish. Do another layer diagonally, being sure to cover all the side and bottom of the dish. Repeat this pattern 2 more times. Pour the batter into the dish and leave about 1/2-inch at the top. You can trim an banana leaf sticking up at the top or just leave it.
Place them inside the steamer and steam on high heat for 1 1/2 hours and then lower the heat and let it steam for another 1 1/2 hours. You need to refill the water in the steamer throughout the cooking process. Don’t let it dry out.
The niangao will still appear soft at the end of cooking time and that’s very normal. You need to let the niangao cool down completely. Wrap them up with plastic wrapper and they will be ready in 2 days. By day 3, the niangao will be much more firm and can be sliced. After that it is best to keep them in the refrigerator, since there are no preservatives. Also, they do keep well in the freezer for several months.
- A popular way to serve them is to pan fry them in egg batter. Just slice the niangao to the size you like and dip them into the egg batter. Fry until golden brown and serve immediately.
Egg Batter for Frying Niángāo
2 large eggs, beaten 2 Tbsp corn starch 1/2 tsp salt
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the nian gao inside the slow cooker and then very carefully pour in the boiling water into the slow cooker up to the point where you fill up the batter. Cook on low for 8-10 hours. It will still appear somewhat soft, but that’s normal. Remove from the slow cooker and let it cool down completely. Then wrap them up and let them sit at room temperature for 2 days before you eat it or cook it with eggs.