As phantom dinner parties go, it was a good one. An entire banquet was laid out on the crisp white cloth: four cold dishes and a lucky eight heat, including the obligatory whole fish, the old-fashioned Sichuaneser han shaobai (sliced pork belly steamed in a bowl of canned greens) and a rice porridge with eight treasures. The kitchen was adorned with Chinese red lanterns and golden decorations. The only problem was that there were no guests.
It was my celebration of the Chinese New Year’s lockdown: Visitors were banned and no one came. The only advantage was that for once, instead of serving the dishes one after the other, I could see them all on the table at the same time, untouched and perfect.
After taking some pictures, I swept all the food into a stack of takeaway boxes to be picked up by local friends. Then, exhausted, I curled up on the couch with a few bites and a bowl of rice.
The lunar new year is the highlight of the year for Chinese around the world, as well as Vietnamese and other East Asians. A festival of reunion, rebirth and new beginning, it takes place between the end of January and February, during the least troublesome time of the agricultural year. Families traditionally gather at home for a smash party on New Year’s Eve, and then stay up until midnight to welcome New Year with a tumult of fireworks. For two weeks afterwards, eat, drink and have fun, until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day ends the holiday.
These days, the Chinese New Year is not only marked by people of Chinese descent, but has become a cultural attraction in Chinatown’s world over, an excuse for people of any nationality to go out and eat Chinese meals or try Chinese recipes. And just as the British complain that Christmas has become too commercialized, people in China usually regret that the modern Chinese New Year, especially in the cities, is just not so renao (noisy and exciting) as it used to be. Actual New Year celebrations are often compared to a mythical past of joy and fireworks, where grandmothers and grandfathers made wonderful feasts at home.
My first Chinese New Year, in 1995, was the kind of magical celebration that everyone dreams of. A friend invited me to spend it with his family in northern Gansu. It was the strange interplay between the end of the Cultural Revolution and the full impact of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Young adults had not yet left their villages for the factories in the south. Traditional culture, banned during the Cultural Revolution, was again allowed, and local elders revived some of their youth rituals.
My friend’s parents were farmers who lived off the dry land and had never learned to read and write. They lived in a traditional farmhouse with walls, a single-storey cluster of rooms around a central courtyard. At one end of the high main room there was one kang, a raised platform under which a slow fire of animal manure smoldered. During the day guests sat here and drank tea; at night, duvets were rolled out over the heated clay surface to sleep.
It was bitterly cold, and the winter landscape was pale, pale yellow under a thin blue sky. Spinning pops flanked the houses. Into this frozen world the New Year festivities exploded with an eruption of spectacular colors. My friend painted promising inscriptions on strips of red paper pasted around the house. Local children spent hours making beautiful lanterns out of wooden splints and colored tissue paper. Young women put on their best clothes, all pink and red.
I joined my friend and his family as they knelt in their orchard, poured alcoholic beverages into the ground, and burned paper money for their ancestors. In the kitchen, I watched his mother and sister make the daily meals from scratch, conjure up noodles, steamed buns and dumplings from a sack of flour. (As a guest, I was never allowed to help.) We ate pork from the pig they had slaughtered a few days before, already salted down in ceramic jars.
For the New Year’s dinner, there were pieces of meat and many other dishes, including of course a whole fish, symbol of abundance, because “one fish every year” sounds the same in Chinese as “every year a profit” (nian nian du yu). The next day we ate, in keeping with local tradition, giant cooked jiaozi dumplings stuffed with pork, dip them in soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil and garlic.
For days afterwards, we visited neighbors, cuddled around their stoves, or warmed ourselves kang. We did little besides eating, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, playing cards and gossiping. For several nights, we followed the village boys dressed in their lion costume with its huge painted head as they writhed and cramped as they danced in front of piles of burning paper cash and incense to the beat of drums and cymbals as they meandered through unlit lanes. Everyone gathered one night outside a temple while fireworks were lit in a haze of shimmering lights and electrifying sound.
It turned out that I had been unusually lucky because this was both my first and last chance to experience that kind of Chinese New Year. Not long after, I heard from my friend that after the brief resuscitation, the villagers had given up the lion dances, the lanterns and all the old things. People were on the move; his village was emptied out. Adults of working age had migrated to the cities in search of work. Only the elderly and the very young remained.
Food is, of course, the core of the New Year celebration. Across China, customs vary widely. A whole fish on New Year’s Eve, however, is almost universal, and it is only one among numerous dishes whose names are promising puns that express the desire that the coming year will be one with luck, wealth, achievement, and abundance. New Year’s cake, nian gao, is a play on the words “year” and “higher”. Cantonese also prefer a dish made from dried oysters slowly cooked with dark mash, its name a homonym for “do a good business and make lots of money”.
The main principle of the New Year’s party is, as one friend explained, “to have more food on the table than anyone can eat at all”. In rural China, the holiday was once almost the only time that meat was eaten lavishly. In many areas, people would traditionally cook good stews of treats, including pork belly, meatballs, deep-fried strips of pork in dough, quail eggs and more. For the rich, the food can be more refined: i Mandarinvejenan account of growing up in a magnificent household in Beijing in the 1930s, San Francisco restaurateur Cecilia Chiang recalls eating dinner with her family on pork shoulders braised in soy sauce and wine “to the quintessence of taste,” clay-baked chicken, a fish “of ambrosial delicacy” and a northern-style hotpot in which several ingredients were prepared, many of them shaped into balls to symbolize unity.
As a student of Chinese language and culture in the 1990s, I began to adopt the Chinese New Year as an annual ritual, whether in China or at home in London. Sometimes I went to the public festivities in London’s Chinatown, followed by a slap-up dim sum lunch with friends. Later, I started making my own New Year’s dinners. My Christmas cooking was already colored by Chinese influences, the turkey marinated in ginger, spring onions and Shaoxing wine, the minced pies shaped into small crescents such as. jiaozi dumplings.
Over the years, I also fell into my own habits for the Chinese festival, such as including a dish that symbolized the Chinese zodiac animal of the year. The year of the rooster was light (chicken), just like the year of the bull (red-braised beef). For Aben’s year, it was a Yunnan steamer with monkey head mushrooms. The year of the dog was a challenge, but I ended up using goji berries, their name a pun on the word “dog” in Chinese. Most dramatic was the Year of the Rat, where I made pink sticky rice rat-shaped dumplings filled with bean paste with strawberry licorice lace tails. (As I lifted the lid of the bamboo steamer on the dinner table, my guests were horrified by their realistic appearance.)
And then the pandemic hit. Like many people, I sought solace in rituals that made me feel connected and sane. The meals gave structure to the day and became something to look forward to, even more than usual. I bought cookbooks and made wild food and experimented with Korean, Japanese and Romanian dishes. Chinese friends in London sent me zongzi, mooncakes, wontons and packets filled with spicy ducks and Chinese vegetables. In return, I offered homemade radish cake and Lebanese pastries made in Chinese molds. These edible exchanges spun threads between us in our mutual isolations; every delivery lifted my mood.
Most of all, deprived of China, I tried to recreate it in my kitchen. In lockdown, I marked the seasons and festivals in the lunar calendar more tenaciously than ever before. As a Russian oligarch who lived life as an English manor or an American who built a Parisian fantasy in Montmartre, I made my own spring roll pancakes in the spring, served steamed rice zongzi with amaranth and salty duck eggs for the Dragon Boat Festival in June, and cured my own pig before New Year. For the first time, I made a Laba porridge of nuts and seeds on the eighth day of the last lunar month, and made a recipe from a Manchu account of ancient Beijing.
Culture and rituals seep into you. Chinese food customs that started as something fun and interesting for a foreigner like me became emotionally necessary. Previously, I had made seasonal offerings to the kitchen god of cultural interest: now, in lockdown, I found that the ritual was imbued with emotion, with longing for China and absent friends. On WeChat, I posted pictures to friends in China of the food I made at home. The message: “I’m still here, making the dishes we shared together, I’m thinking of you.”
Rituals often seem eternal. Everyone has their own image of the ideal, unchanging Christmas or New Year. Yet our traditions are a swirling helix through time, giving off some aspects and gaining others. Rituals speak of our need for anchoring, yet they are constantly recreated to meet our current needs. The lunar new year was once chiefly a time of rest and renewal for the peasants; now it is also a reunion for migrant workers and a marker of cultural identity for the Chinese diaspora. Immigrants to Britain of all faiths and no one borrow elements of Christmas, a Christian (and now post-Christian) celebration that grew out of pagan midwinter festivals.
As the Chinese New Year approached the pandemic of February 2021, I wondered how one could celebrate the reunion festival at a time of separation. First, I considered making a miniature dinner with a small steamed fish and slices of pork and rice porridge steamed in small bowls. But then I decided anyway to have a party and cook exactly as I would have done for a kitchen full of guests before sending a picture of the food to friends in China and giving away most of the physical food. The thought of my companions having to share the party with me in their separate home made me happy in my loneliness.
This year, life looks up and I have been invited to celebrate it with a friend from Shanghai who is one of the best chefs I know. It’s going to be Tiger’s year, and I hope to make my own contribution: maybe a tiger-striped salad of cracked carrot and ear mushrooms and a tiger version of steamed sticky rice balls, the sticky dough tinted orange with pumpkin juice and marbled with cocoa strips.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book is “The Food of Sichuan”
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