Far and away the most important holiday in China is Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year. To the Chinese people it is as important as Christmas to people in the West. The dates for this annual celebration are determined by the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, so the timing of the holiday varies from late January to early February.
To the ordinary Chinese, the festival actually begins on the eve of the lunar New Year’s Day and ends on the fifth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. But the 15th of the first month, which normally is called the Lantern Festival, means the official end of the Spring Festival in many parts of the country.
Preparations for the New Year begin the last few days of the last moon, when houses are thoroughly cleaned, debts repaid, hair cut and new clothes purchased. Houses are festooned with paper scrolls bearing auspicious antithetical couplet (as show on both side of the page) and in many homes, people burn incense at home and in the temples to pay respects to ancestors and ask the gods for good health in the coming months.
“Guo Nian,” meaning “passing the year,” is the common term among the Chinese people for celebrating the Spring Festival. It actually means greeting the new year. At midnight at the turn of the old and new year, people used to let off fire-crackers which serve to drive away the evil spirits and to greet the arrival of the new year. In an instant the whole city would be engulfed in the deafening noise of the firecrackers.
On New Year’s Eve, all the members of families come together to feast. Jiaozi, a steamed dumpling as pictured below, is popular in the north, while southerners favor a sticky sweet glutinous rice pudding called nian gao.
Jiaozi, or Chinese Boiled Dumpings
Note: Ingredients taken from the Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Dumpling construction technique courtesy of Mrs. Jen Y. Chong.
makes about 36 dumplings
For the Dough:
- 2 1/2 C unsifted flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 C boiling water
- 1 Tbsp. lard, cut up into little pieces
Mix the flour and salt. Add the boiling water and stir with chopsticks. Add the lard. Knead all and let rest on a plastic counter under a bowl for 20 minutes.
To make dumpling skins: Break off a piece of the dough the size of 1 teaspoon. Keep the rest of the dough under the bowl. Roll the dough into a ball and then roll out into a 3-inch circle. You may need extra flour for this. Or, use a tortilla press that has been very lightly oiled with peanut oil on a paper towel. This gets you going and the rest of the rolling is easy. To store skins until use, dust each skin lightly with flour and stack on top of one another.
If you are pressed for time, you may want to purchase a package of pre-made dumpling skins (the round ones) from any Asian supermarket. Don’t buy the square ones–those are for won-tons!
For the Filling:
- 1 cup finely chopped Napa cabbage
- 1 lb. lean ground pork
- 2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp. dry sherry
- 1 tsp. freshly grated ginger
- 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
- 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp. MSG (optional)
- Pinch of sugar
- 1 Tbsp. chopped green onion
- 1 egg white
- 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
- 1 tsp. salt
- 4 Tbsp. medium chopped bamboo shoots or water chestnuts (optional)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
Sprinkle salt on chopped cabbage and let sit in a colander for 30 min. Squeeze dry (either by hand or in a potato ricer) and place into bowl. Add all of the remaining ingredients and mix well. Also add a splash of chili paste, to taste.
- Place dumpling skin in the palm of your hand. Dip a finger in cold water and wet the edges of the dumpling skin.
- Spoon a lump of filling (approx. 1 Tbsp.) into the middle of the skin.
- Fold dumpling in half. Pinch top of semi-circle together.
- Push in on both sides of dumpling, so that the dumpling should look like the letter “I” from the top.
- Bend one half of each “top” of the “I” and press against middle edge of dumpling. Seal all edges of dumpling.
- Your dumpling should look like a half-moon with a big bulge in the middle!
To cook, drop into a big pot of boiling water under they float to the surface. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Chinese Sticky Cake (Nian Gao)
3/4 cup water
1. In a small pan, boil water.
This steamed fruit cake is a favorite for Chinese New Year.