Chinese count down
The countdown has begun. As the Chinese New Year approaches, the festive excitement is in the air for at least one fifth of the world’s population, or even more. The Lunar New Year is celebrated in China and Hong Kong, as well as other countries, including Taiwan, North and South Korea, Mongolia and among all ethnic Chinese communities of the world. The date of the New Year varies each year according to the lunar calendar that follows the cycles of the moon and attributes different animal signs to each lunar year following a cycle of 12 years. This year, Feb. 16 will mark the start of the Year of the Dog.
Chinese New Year is never a celebration of a single year. Preparations began on Feb. 8. The houses are thoroughly cleaned and special dishes of certain significance are made each day. In Turkey, we had a special start to the Chinese New Year celebration period with a special organization held at the Thermopolium Gastronomy Academy (TGA) at Başkent University in Ankara. With the collaboration of the Turkish government and Embassy of China, nine Chinese chefs and China Cuisine Association (CCA) vice president Bian Jiang visited Turkey for a series of special dinners and events, including a workshop, lunch and a seminar on Chinese New Year and the TGA’s festival in the spring.
The Chinese New Year celebrations and all the beliefs related with food have their roots in agriculture. The prosperity of an agrarian society relies on the bounty of the land. So, as the New Year marks the start of a new cycle of agriculture, every wish for the future is about hoping for abundance. As the New Year progresses, one must have certain foods every day, which bear symbolic significances, such as prosperity, abundance, good fortune, good luck, health and longevity. Family reunions are of ultimate importance, so eating together and sharing food will also call for unity.
In his talk, Jiang stressed the importance of the symbolic meanings of the essential foods one must eat every day as the New Year progresses. Here is the countdown: The first day starts with Jiaozi dumplings. According to region, steamed buns (mantou) are also favored. Candied fruits bring luck. Fish, duck and chicken are important to have on the table, but only on the condition that they are cooked whole. The whole, uncut and unquartered animal represents wholeness, unity and integrity. Fish represents plenty and fertility. A whole fish eaten together with family brings happiness. The best parts of the fish, duck or chicken are given to the elderly, representing respect. Chicken feet are given to the most hard-working and industrious of the family. In that case, I assume chicken feet will always go to the mother!
The second day is the time to visit in-laws and second-degree relatives. The food is usually a repetition of the first day. Rice is skipped on the third day. Instead, long noodles are served for longevity. Again, dumplings are also in the scheme.
The fourth day is reserved for visits to relatives. The dishes are usually leftovers from the previous days. Dumplings are served again on the fifth day; actually, dumplings and glutinous rice balls (either sweet or savory) dominate each day until the New Year, also repeating the auspicious dishes every day, with a few variations. On the eighth day, fish is avoided and on the ninth, a hot pot of meat is served. The 10th day is corn soup day and the 11th day is the return of whole fish again. Duck is served on the 12th day. Some regions have the bird crisp roasted, while some regions have it plain boiled. Long noodles are served again on the 14th day, with seven different vegetables. Dumplings rock again on the 15th, especially when the kitchen god is sent back to the sky with the kitchen stove burning and lanterns lit all around. Glutinous rice balls bring wealth on this day.
It seems there cannot be Chinese New Year without dumplings. Dumplings are always prepared in abundance. It is important that there is more than plenty and even a surplus of dumplings. Jiang stresses the fact that a Chinese person might not know how to cook, but he or she has to know how to make a dumpling. It is as simple as that. As well as eating dumplings together, making the dumplings together as family is a source of happiness and joy. It is great fun, especially when the single coin hidden in one of the countless dumplings hits the lucky one. That person will be the luckiest among the family in the forthcoming year.
While listening to Jiang, I am sitting beside the representative of the Gastronomy Tourism Council of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. She could not help but utter saying, “We do the exact same!” and said they hide a coin in mantı (Turkish dumplings) on special holidays when they have family gatherings. Apparently, there is a lot to discover about the links of the two culinary cultures of both countries. So, it is time to celebrate with our Chinese friends and time to roll some dumplings!
Recipe of the week: Dumplings forever! That must be the motto of Chinese New Year. This year, our recipe is from master chef Deniz Orhun, who was the mastermind of the Chinese gastronomic event. Deniz Orhun has a family connection with China. Her dear sister wed a Chinese man and has been living in China for 35 years. So every year, she visits China for long periods and observes the cultural links between both countries. She believes a lot of connections can be made through food.
Here is how she makes her dumplings. First, start with the dough for the dumpling. Put 500 grams of flour and 1¼ cup of cold water in a stainless bowl and knead well. The cold water will help form the gluten and the stainless steel bowl will prevent the dough’s temperature from increasing while you are kneading. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let it rest while you prepare the filling.
For the filling, chop finely one medium onion, two carrots and two leaves of cabbage. You may also do that in a food processor. Mix them with 400 grams of minced meat. Add two teaspoons of minced ginger, black and white pepper to taste and five tablespoons of soy sauce. Mix well.
To make the dumplings, take small lumps of dough and roll each into saucer-sized disks, fill and fold into a ”D” shape folding the edges in an overlapping manner. The shape symbolizes ancient Chinese gold nuggets and is believed to bring wealth and prosperity. Boil the dumplings for about 10-12 minutes in salted water. Serve with a garlic and vinegar sauce made by mixing five cloves of minced garlic with a small cup of rice vinegar.