Delicious traditional food on the menu for Spring Festival
DELICIOUS food always plays an important role in Chinese Spring Festival, and Jiading people get busy preparing festival food pretty early—steamed cake, parched rice, fried peanuts, meat balls, fish balls, egg dumplings and the unique Spring Festival Greeting Soup.
Preparing Festival Food
Local families start to prepare for the festival about 10 days ahead, since lunar December 23 when people send the kitchen god away.
Zhuanggao Cake is a must for many Jiading families. People usually soak sticky rice with water, grind it into powder to make the cake and then steam it. Some will add sugar and lard, and richer families will add red dates, red beans, pine nuts, walnuts and honey dates.
Steaming the cake takes skill. The first step is to melt the sugar with boiled water and mix it with flour after cooling. It can’t be too wet or too dry, or it will affect the quality of the cake. The cake is usually steamed on a big kitchen range, and people use firewood to strengthen the fire. Usually the steamer is just half-full at first, and people will fill it when the cake inside is already done.
When the whole cake is cooked, it will be poured out of the big steamer in a whole block, and the house will be full of the flavor of the cake. It’s always the first food to show up at the Spring Festival.
Crunch rice candy is another popular snack for the festival. It’s made of parched rice, peanuts and sesame seeds. In olden times, rich families would use only peanuts and sesame seeds to make candy. The guy who sold parched rice was always busy, as he often had to stay in a village for one whole day to make parched rice for almost all the families. Kilos of parched rice came out with a big bang, and children would come running to have the first taste. Different from parched rice, peanuts and sesame seeds were usually fried at home, and the flavor often spread throughout the whole village.
When parched rice, peanuts and sesame seeds are ready, it’s time to make candy. Just like cooking the cake, people will melt sugar in water first, and then pour rice, peanuts and sesame seeds into the pot to fry. Then, the fried materials will be put into moulds quickly and cut into pieces after cooling. Of course, when the candy is done, children will come running again.
Besides the candy, Jiading families will also fry some peanuts as snacks. Peanuts are also called “longevity nuts” among Chinese families in rural area, and they are believed to bring good fortune. Local women usually use a gentle flame to fry peanuts to prevent overcooking, and one family will need about two to four kilograms of fried peanuts for the festival.
Meanwhile, rural families use sand to fry broad beans, rice cakes and pod sugar because sand can ensure the food is heated evenly. The broad beans and rice cakes fried with sand are always savory and crispy. Pod sugar is made of sticky rice powder and looks like bean pod. These rural snacks are important parts in the festival and also a favorite with the children.
Chinese New Year’s Eve: The Family Reunion Dinner
The family reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve is considered the most important dinner of the year. Family members come back home to spend the evening together.
Rice is a must for the meal, and all the dishes will be freshly cooked on that day.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s when rural areas were poorer than today, the menu for the family reunion dinner was still quite abundant, including braised pork, fried boiled pork, meat balls, one whole fish, egg dumplings and dried bean curd with meat stuffing.
Usually the dinner includes at least eight hot dishes, and most times there are no vegetables.
In rich families, duck, chicken, yellow croaker, lamb and beef will be served. The quality of dishes depends on the financial condition of the family.
Nowadays, as situations improve, many families choose to have their reunion dinners in restaurants rather than at home.
Chinese New Year’s Day: Breakfast
People usually eat rice dumplings, wontons or noodles on the morning of New Year’s Day.
There are two options for the stuffing of dumplings, sweet bean paste with red dates and black crunchy cake, or salty stuffing with pork and radish. Small rice dumplings with sweet fermented rice is another choice for many families.
Wontons for the year’s first breakfast are also different from those on other days which have both meat and vegetable stuffing. On New Year’s Day it will be all meat. Noodles on the first day are called longevity noodles. They are long and have toppings such as meat, bean curd sheets and mushrooms.
Lunar January 15: Spring Festival Greeting Soup
A Jiading custom is to have Spring Festival Greeting Soup on lunar January 15, the day that marks the end of the Spring Festival. Most of the delicious food has already been eaten, and housewives use any leftovers to make soup.The tradition originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when there was a famous Jiading scholar named Tang Shisheng whose family was poor.
On a lunar January 15, one of his students became a high ranking official and returned to visit Tang.
When Tang met the student, he was happy for his success but also worried because he was too poor to offer him something to eat. But his wife took some red dates, water chestnuts, dried bean curd and fried bread sticks which were used for worship and put them in a pot together with some noodles, dumplings, rice and vegetables which were leftovers.
The student enjoyed the soup and asked Tang what it was called.
Tang hesitated a moment and then said: “We can call it Spring Festival Greeting Soup.”
Eating Spring Festival Greeting Soup today indicates the end of the festival and the time to get back to work.