Spring Festival: Jiao Zi, Nian Gao & Yuan Xiao
The Spring Festival is the oldest and most important festival in China, celebrating the earth coming back to life. It is a day filled with special events, foods, and festivities. People from north and south have different habits about the food they eat on this special day. Among the food most popular in the south of China is a rice pudding called Nian Gao; while in the north, the special food for Spring Festival is Jiao Zi (or dumpling).
-- Jiao Zi
Since the Spring Festival marks the first day of a brand new year, the first meal is rather important. People from north and south have different habits of the food they eat on this special day. In Northern China, people usually eat Jiao Zi (or dumpling) which is shaped like a crescent moon. It is said that dumplings were first known in China some 1,600 years ago. The Chinese pronunciation of Jiao Zi means midnight or the end and the beginning of time. According to historical records, in ancient times people from both north and south ate dumplings on Chinese New Year's Day. Perhaps because Southern China produced more rice than any other areas, gradually, southerners had more other choices on New Year's Day.
The shape of Jiao Zi resembles that of ancient gold and silver ingots or a crescent moon, and symbolizes the hope for a year of plenty. In some places, people stuff Jiao Zi with sugar to wish for a sweet life; others put one or two clean coins in Jiao Zi -- the person who finds the coin would make a lot of money in the coming year; if you happen to come across one with a coin inside, it means you will enjoy good luck.
Many families in China usually prepare enough Jiao Zi to last several days during the Spring Festival. To make Jiao Zi, first of all, you should chop the meat into tiny pieces and mash them, then add salt, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, scallions, and Chinese cabbage if you like. Mix thoroughly the ingredients and meat filling, and then add two spoonful of water if necessary.
In a big bowl, add water to flour gradually. Mix and knead by hand to soft dough, then cover it with towel and put it aside for about an hour. Scatter some dry flour on the board, knead and roll it into a sausage-like dough about 5 centimeters in diameter, then chop it into small pieces. Press each piece with your hand and get a pancake. Finally, you should hold the pancake with your palm and put the filling in the center and wrap it into half-moon shaped and seal the edges.
Put the dumplings into boiling water, when it is well cooked, it is ready to be served. However, before eating, you need to prepare some small dishes to contain the mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil or pepper oil to suit your own taste.
In addition to Jiao Zi, the most common foods for Spring Festival are Nian Gao (or New Year Cakes) and Yuan Xiao, a kind of round sweet dumplings made partly or wholly of glutinous rice flour served in soup.
-- Nian Gao
The northerners eat Jiao Zi, but southerners like to eat Nian Gao, which translates to "New Year Cake". In Chinese, Gao is a homonym for high. Nian Gao is also called Nian Nian Gao, which is a homonym for "higher each year", symbolizing progress and promotion at work and in daily life and improvement in life year by year.
Nian Gao is a sweet, sticky, brown cake made from rice flour and sugar, a kind of glutinous white cake in the shape of rectangle. Often given as a gift, it is delicious when steamed, fried, fried with eggs or even eaten cold.
-- Yuan Xiao
The Lantern Festival (or Yuan Xiao Festival in Chinese) is an important traditional Chinese festival, which is on the 15th of the first lunar month, marking the end of celebrations of the New Year.
Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, another important part of the Lantern Festival or Yuan Xiao Festival is eating small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour. We call these balls Yuan Xiao or Tang Yuan. Obviously, they get the name from the festival itself. Made of sticky rice flour filled with sweet stuffing and round in shape, it symbolizes family unity, completeness and happiness.
The fillings inside the dumplings or Yuan Xiao are either sweet or salty. Sweet fillings are made of sugar, Walnuts, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean paste, or jujube paste. A single ingredient or any combination can be used as the filling. The salty variety is filled with minced meat, vegetables or a mixture.
The way to make Yuan Xiao also varies between northern and southern China. The usual method followed in southern provinces is to shape the dough of rice flour into balls, make a hole, insert the filling, then close the hole and smooth out the dumpling by rolling it between your hands. In North China, sweet or non-meat stuffing is the usual ingredient. The fillings are pressed into hardened cores, dipped lightly in water and rolled in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour. A layer of the flour sticks to the filling, which is then again dipped in water and rolled a second time in the rice flour. And so it goes, like rolling a snowball, until the dumpling is the desired size.
In some places, it is also very popular to give oranges, because in Chinese, the word "orange" sounds like "Ji", which means "good luck". People present oranges to express their respects and good wishes to their friends and relatives for the coming year.
New Year food customs vary from place to place in China because China is a vast country geographically, demographically and ethnically. But the spirit underlying the diverse celebrations of the New Year is the same -- a sincere wish of peace and happiness for family members and friends.