Lucky piggy

Lucky piggy

Aylin Öney Tan -

Pigs are symbols of good fortune in life. This is a widely held belief in Germany, where the New Year is met with either a pig running around or a pinky pig-shaped marzipan to bring good luck. But in 2019, pigs belong to Asia, to all the countries that follow the 12-animal zodiac. Now that we are stepping today to the year of pig according to the Chinese calendar, we must expect a lucky year, especially for the ones born in 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959 (like myself), 1947 or 1935, all years of the lucky piggy.

The Chinese New Year, also celebrated as the Spring Festival, marks the start of the new lunar year. It is undoubtedly the most important holiday of China. For many, it is the only time when families unite in the course of the year. It is a long holiday, technically lasting for 15 days, starting from the New Year’s Eve and ending on the full moon of the first month of the Chinese calendar — this year it will be Feb. 19. People are supposed to spend the first five days of the year together, without going out, so almost everybody living in cities, feel obliged to visit the elderly living in rural China. That means a crazily crowded rush back to the homeland from big megacities for most of the Chinese. It is pretty much like an exodus, people practically leave the cities in flocks. The stressful organization for the New Year starts months earlier, as train tickets are released only 60 days in advance. There is a big fight to get them as soon as they are up for sale. Called chunyun, or Spring Migration, it is obligatory for every Chinese to go back home to reunite with the elderly of the family.

Every Chinese New Year has its own significance. Some years are troublesome, some years are more fortunate. According to Chinese zodiac and the 12-animal calendar, every year bears a sign that shapes the characteristics of that particular year. This year is the year of the pig, the lucky pig. However, Chinese zodiac is way more complex than single animal signs; there is also the element factor that gives each year its particular character. It can be water, wood, fire, earth or metal, taking their turns, so any animal/element combination can reoccur only in every 60 years. I was born in an Earth Pig year, and this year is another Earth Pig year, and the former one was back in 1959 (that reveals my age). According to Chinese astrology, Earth Pigs are more successful in the later years of life, so I have big expectations this year, though according to belief, the year of one’s zodiac sign is their “bad year,” mostly unlucky, full of danger and troublesome by all means. So if there is anyone out here in the pig sign, beware!

Chinese New Year feast is all about beliefs and superstitions. Every single food that is put on the table has a significance; either calling for prosperity and plenty or warding off bad luck and calling for the good one. Every single day another dish is on stage; dumplings are a must on New Year’s Eve, long slippery noodles for longevity, mandarins and kumquats are for wealth, whole chicken or fish is for unity, rice cake is for success and achieving a higher status for the coming year. The list is endless, but all are delicious and fun to eat.

One last festive dish to mention is familiar among every one, for even the ones unrelated to the Chinese culture: Who knew that spring rolls, ubiquitous in Chinese menus throughout the world and throughout the year, originally belong to the Spring Festival to celebrate the coming of spring. During the Jin Dynasty circa 3rd and 5th centuries, a spring platters with rolls and all the vegetables arranged artistically on a plate were a precious gift.

The Chinese spring roll and Turkish sigara böreği (cigar-shaped savory fried rolls) have lots in common; every Turkish cook is familiar with the rolling and frying process. Only the filling is kind of different, but the flavors are very accessible to the Turkish palate, though the cheese filling in the Turkish börek would make it quite an acquired taste for the Chinese. Anyway, it will be a safe bet to have some Chinese food today, just to join one fifth of the world’s population in their most important day of the year or just to have something tasty and lucky!

Lucky piggy

Recipe of the Week:

This is a Turco-Chinese fusion of spring rolls. As spring roll skins are not readily available in Turkey, and rolling out for your own dough will take time, I find using yufka (filo) sheets very practical, making a good substitute. Actually rice flour based güllaç sheets are even better, though they may need a good spray of water to make them pliable to roll without cracking. My version is totally vegetarian, but feel free to add shrimps or ground pork (for the piggy year) or cured Chinese sausage if you have on hand. Cut in matchstick shape carrots, cabbages and spring onions, I would say a cupful or handful of each would be enough. I also like to add something dark green, Swiss chard or cavolo nero are good greens to go in a spring roll. Toss the harder veggies (carrots and cabbages) in a little bit of salt to soften, wait about 15 minutes or so, squeeze the excess moisture with your hands. Of course, you may add some exotic Chinese stuff like bamboo shoots if you have some in the pantry, or even better if you have some, reconstitute a few dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water, when soft thinly slice them. You may add also a handful of cellophane noodles, reconstituted in boiling water and drained. Chop finely 2 cloves of garlic and 1-2 cm piece of fresh ginger. Mix all the veggies, mushrooms and, if using the noodles with the garlic and ginger, add 2-3 tablespoons light soy sauce, a splash of Shaohsing wine or Chinese vinegar or dry sherry if you have, or do not bother if you do not have, mix thoroughly. Adding a few drops of sesame oil will also help to achieve a distinct Chinese taste. Place 2 teaspoons or a 1 heaped tablespoon of this filling on spring roll skins or yufka or güllaç sheets. If using yufka cut the dough in triangles, if using güllaç sheets cut into rounds or squares. Fold the two sides over the filling and wrap in a not-too-tight roll, brush the end with egg white to seal. Fry in cooking oil until golden crisp. Do not forget to wish yourself good luck when eating!