Happy New Year! Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) is the most important holiday for the Chinese people. It is a season for celebration, food, visiting family and friends.
According to the traditional Chinese calendar, this is the year 4710.
As a child growing up in New York City where a few of my relatives from our village in Toy Shan ( a rural town in Guangdong Province) lived, the new year meant endless days of dinners and visits with relatives. Our laundry home was extra clean for the occasion. Plates or bowls of either oranges or tangerines were placed throughout our humble but spotless home . Tangerines are symbolic of good luck, and oranges represent wealth.
On New Year’s Eve my mom made a huge dinner—fish, chicken, seaweed soup, squid, abalone, roasted pig, vermicelli noodles, tofu, various vegetables, and of course rice. The meal had at least 12 to 15 dishes. Each dish was symbolic of the good wishes for the new year. The chicken had to be complete with head, neck, and feet to symbolize completeness. A form of noodles was server to symbolize long life. A whole fish was symbolic of never lacking, you’ll always have since the pronunciation for the word fish in Chinese sounds similar to the pronunciation of the word to have. Enough food was made for the new year’s eve dinner to make sure there would be leftovers, a symbol that you had an abundance of food.
One of the favorite foods for my sister and brothers was a sesame ball my mom and dad made during Chinese New Year. In my Cantonese dialect, Toy Shan, they are called tee doy. Mom made these for the family and took them to the relatives during our new year’s visits.
I can remember my mom starting the process after the dinner dishes were washed the day before new year’s eve. She liked to make them undisturbed through the night. I can still remember the aroma of hot sweet potato and brown sugar wafting through the cold laundry air as she stirred the mixture over a two burner stove as we slept.
In the morning, we’d awaken to the smell of hot oil and the gentle sizzle of the tee doys cooking, our alarm clock. We were eager to taste these once a year treats.
Mom’s recipe changed through the years. When were children, the filling was crushed peanuts, sweetened shredded coconut, Chinese dried dates, and chunks of pork fat. Our job was to crush the peanuts with a glass bottle that served as our rolling pin. Eventually pork fat was given up for a healthier filling—freshly ground organic Valencia peanut butter and lotus seed paste.
The outer skin, made of glutinous rice flour and Chinese brown sugar, varied with the addition of sweet potato or no sweet potato depending upon its availability. Today I use as much sweet potato as the dough will allow me to increase the nutrition and fiber to these sweet golden jewels. When these are made right, the skin is crispy, thin on the outside and chewy on the inside. The filling is creamy and flavors the neutral glutinous rice flour skin. If crunchy peanut butter is used, there is an added surprise crunch as you chew.
To enhance your enjoyment of the Chinese New Year, may I suggest you complement the celebration with the viewing of my painting, Still Life with Tangerine, Ceramic Pot, and Grape.
新年快乐！(xin nian kuai le) Happy New Year!
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