Chinese festivals reflect the diverse cultural heritage of its many ethnic groups, and food plays a very important part in celebrations. So from spring to winter, from the Chinese Lunar New Year to Laba Festival (the 8th day of the last month in the Chinese calendar), what are the special foods for the festivals in China?
Spring Festival-NIAN GAO,JIAOZI,and FISH
To all people who trace their roots back to China, the most important date in the Lunar calendar is Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, a traditional time for feasting with family and friends that dates back thousands of years. On New Year’s Eve, families have a reunion feast which includes NIAN GAO, a sticky rice pudding cake which is said to make people “advance toward higher positions and prosperity step by step.”
Another New Year’s Eve tradition from Northern China is dumplings (JIAO ZI), which look like the golden ingots, “yuanbao”, and are used during the Ming Dynasty for money, and the name sounds like the word for the earliest paper money- so serving them brings the promise of wealth and prosperity! Many families eat these at midnight so they have money at the changing of the year. Some cooks will hide a clean coin in one for the most lucky to find. Long noodles are used to guarantee that all at the table will have a long life.
Fish, usually of a local variety, is an important item on the dining table of thousands of families on the eve of the Spring Festival. Fish is pronounced ‘yu’ in Chinese, with the implications of having more than just a basic need each year. There are also festival gifts exchanged between relatives and friends during the Chinese New Year. In southern China, some people just eat the middle part of the fish on the New Year Eve, leaving the head and tail to the next day to symbolize completeness. Meanwhile, it is particularly important that when fish is placed on the dining table, its head must be pointed towards the elders, as a sign of respect.
Another important thing is that,whether it’s fish or fowl, dishes are prepared whole. The use of knives or cleavers are considered unlucky as this could sever the entire family’s good fortune.
Lantern Festival-YUAN XIAO
Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Chinese people have had the custom of dining on traditional Chinese fare highlighted by ‘Yuanxiao’ on the Lantern Festival which is also called Yuanxiao Festival in China. Yuanxiao is a kind of rice dumpling made of glutinous rice powder and wrapped with various fillings like bean paste, brown sugar and all kinds of fruits and nuts. People eat these on the last day of the Spring Festival, since they are also named ‘tangyuan’ or ‘tuanyuan’ among the Chinese folk, pronounced like ‘tuanyuan’ (reunion) in Chinese.
Dragon Boat Festival-ZONG ZI
Throughout the country families will eat ‘zongzi’ to memorize the national hero Qu Yuan (he ended his life by drowning in the Miluo River on hearing his state was defeated.) on the Dragon Boat Festival, the day of Qu Yuan’s death. Zongzi are pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, usually made sweet with Chinese dates in northern China. However, it can be either sweet or savory and made from a great variety of ingredients besides glutinous rice, such as meat, shrimp, bean paste and nuts in southern China.
Moon Festival-MOON CAKE
Offering sacrifices to the moon, eating moon cakes and watching the moon are the main activities on Mid-Autumn Day. Moon cakes are usually round-shaped, representing family reunion and bright life. They are made with a sweet bean-paste filling, and a golden brown flaky skin; but nowadays, there are more than a dozen variations, including bean paste, yolk paste, coconut paste, five-core paste and so on. To make them attractive, some clever cooks decorate the moon cakes by drawing the pattern of ‘Chang Er’s Flying to the Moon’.
Laba Festival-LABA PORRIDGE
Eating Laba Porridge, also named ‘Eight Porridge’, is the focal point of the celebration on Laba Festival, the day when Sakyamuni became Buddha. Chinese folk cook the porridge specially to offer sacrifices to the divinities and ancestors to pray for bountiful harvests and auspicious events in the coming year on the day. Originally, the porridge was made with rice and red beans. Now, the main ingredients are various types of rice and millet and a wide assortment of nuts and dried fruits, all being very nutritious. The porridge cooks all night long and has an enticing aroma that can be savored from a great distance.