Dyed-in-the-wool traditions will welcome the Year of the Sheep
By Lu Feiran
Chen Youdie, 62, is busy these days preparing for the coming Spring Festival. It’s an annual ritual she has been performing for all the decades she’s lived in Xinzhuang.
Chen lives in a family of five people. When it comes to the Chinese New Year holiday, she shoulders the responsibility for all the special meals. Family dinners are a big part of the holiday celebrations. Her son and daughter-in-law help with decorating their home.
The Year of the Sheep starts on Thursday. Here is how this Minhang family will be celebrating.
Food preparation began two weeks before the big family dinner is held on Chinese New Year’s Eve. It’s the most significant family get-together of the year, and Chen wants to make it perfect.
“Many families now have the dinner at a restaurant, but we still prefer gathering at home,” she said. “On one hand, New Year’s Eve is too busy for the restaurants to provide the highest quality food; on the other hand, we enjoy the after-dinner custom of watching the gala New Year’s show on television rather than spending the time on the road.”
In Shanghai, certain dishes are almost mandatory to welcome in a new year. One of them is a smoked fish called xunyu, though the fish is actually fried and then boiled.
Chen buys a whole black carp and chops it into 16 pieces. She dips the pieces in a sauce made from soy sauce, salt and sugar for several hours before deep-frying the fish. The last step is to boil the fried fish and the sauce together.
“Smoked fish is served as cold-dish appetizer,” said Chen. “It is soft and juicy, combining both savory and sweet flavors. Everyone in Shanghai loves the dish.”
Another traditional dish is the “three delicacies pot,” or sanxian shaguo, which is usually served at the end of the meal. The pot contains a variety of ingredients, such as meatballs, fish balls, egg dumplings, bean noodles and Chinese cabbage.
“Every family has their own recipe for the dish,” said Chen. “I know some families love to use fried fish, boiled quail eggs or green vegetables in the pot, but we like to keep it basic.”
Keeping it basic still requires a lot of skill, mostly in making the egg dumplings. Although the dumplings can be bought frozen in supermarkets, Chen still prefers to make hers by hand at home.
“We tried frozen egg dumplings once, but they weren’t very good,” she said.
The easiest part of making egg dumplings is the stuffing, which is usually minced pork with diced spring onions. The wrap, however, is where great skill is required.
Chen has a special device to make the wrap — a large, round ladle. She brushes the inside of the ladle with a piece of pork fat. When the ladle is hot, she pours the some of egg mixture in and rotates the ladle to ensure the mixture covers the bottom evenly. When the mixture is half dried, she adds the stuffing and quickly wraps the dumpling together with a pair of chopsticks.
“The key to making good egg dumplings is in the timing,” Chen said. “You need to wrap the dumpling up before the egg mixture dries out but after the mixture is still too wet. Timing is something you learn only from experience.”
Chen’s family also has a special New Year’s vegetable dish that is a great favorite. It is a stir-fried mixture of shredded cress, carrots, black fungus, shitake mushroom and sprouts. “The dish is called hecai, which means ‘the dish of peace,’” said Chen. “The recipe has been passed down in our family for generations and it symbolizes wishes for a peaceful new year.”
Apart from the New Year’s Eve dinner, Chen does elaborate preparation for breakfast on New Year’s Day. The morning fare is a tea egg and a bowl of sweet rice cake soup, which is a mixture of diced rice cake, dates, red beans and dried longyan, a fruit also called “dragon’s eye.”
In China, rice cake is called niangao, which has a pronunciation similar to “high year,” so the cake has become a tradition on New Year’s Day. Tea eggs are also called “gold ingot eggs” in some areas of Shanghai, symbolizing wishes for good fortune.
“The breakfast is very different from our normal breakfast of congee and steamed bread,” said Chen. “So everybody, my grandson especially, is looking forward to it.”
Decorations and firecrackers:
Chen’s daughter-in-law, who isn’t much of a cook, contributes to the holiday by decorating the apartment. Every year she buys fresh flowers to place around the home.
Daffodils, in particular, are essential to the Chinese New Year.
“I actually don’t know why daffodils are so popular around Spring Festival,” said Chen. “I assume it’s because that is the season when the early spring flower typically blooms. The scent is just lovely and the bright yellow flowers are so cheerful.”
The daffodils are usually placed in shallow pots. Glass marbles are placed around the root to keep the plant in place. When the daffodils are in full bloom, their light fragrance fills the whole house.
Another family favorite is the pussy willow. The tiny white fluff balls on the branches gives the apartment a look always associated with the holiday, said Chen.
Firecrackers typically resound around Shanghai at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but the fireworks mania doesn’t include the Chen family anymore.
Chen said the family used to tie a string of firecrackers on a pole, and light the wick after the pole was hoisted through the window and out beyond the balcony. But several years ago, an accident happened.
“I didn’t know why, but my husband failed to extend the pole out in time, and the fire crackers exploded on our balcony,” she said. “Everybody was freaked out, but fortunately no one was hurt. The smoke in the room didn’t clear for two hours.”
The family has since given up doing fireworks.
“Firecrackers aren’t that necessary to a good celebration,” she said. “We still enjoy the reunion with family and relatives. Sometimes we take a day trip out of town one day of the holiday.”