As phantom dinner parties go, it was a good one. A whole banquet was laid out on the crisp white cloth: four cold dishes and a lucky eight hot ones, including the obligatory whole fish, the old-fashioned Sichuanese han shaobai (sliced pork belly steamed in a bowl with preserved greens) and an eight-treasure rice pudding. The kitchen was decked out in Chinese red lanterns and golden decorations. The only problem was that there were no guests.
It was my lockdown Chinese New Year celebration: visitors were banned and no one was coming. The only advantage was that, for once, instead of serving the dishes one after another, I could see them all on the table simultaneously, untouched and perfect.
After taking some photographs, 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 sofa with a few morsels and a bowlful of rice.
The lunar new year is the high point of the year for Chinese people all over the world, as well as Vietnamese and other East Asians. A festival of reunion, rebirth and new beginnings, it takes place between late January and February, during the least onerous time of the agricultural year. Families traditionally gather at home for a slap-up feast on New Year’s Eve, and then stay up until midnight to welcome the New Year with a riot of firecrackers. For two weeks afterwards, people eat, drink and make merry, until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day brings the holiday to an end.
These days, the Chinese New Year is not only marked by people of Chinese descent but has become a cultural attraction in Chinatowns worldwide, an excuse for people of any nationality to go out for a Chinese meal or try their hand at Chinese recipes. And just as British people complain that Christmas has become too commercialized, people in China habitually lament that the modern Chinese New Year, especially in cities, just isn’t as renao (noisy and exciting) as it used to be. Actual New Year’s festivities are often compared to a mythical past of joy and firecrackers, when grannies and grandfathers cooked marvelous feasts at home.
My first Chinese New Year, in 1995, was the kind of magical celebration of which everyone dreams. A friend invited me to spend it with his family in northern Gansu. It was that strange interlude between the end of the cultural revolution and the full impact of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Young adults had yet to desert their villages for the factories of the south. Traditional culture, banned during the cultural revolution, was once again permitted, and local elders were reviving some of the rituals of their youth.
My friend’s parents were farmers who eked out a living from the arid land and had never learned to read and write. They lived in a traditional walled farmhouse, a single-storey cluster of rooms around a central courtyard. At one end of the lofty main room, there was a kang, a raised platform beneath which a slow fire of animal dung smouldered. During the day, guests sat here drinking tea; at night, quilts were unrolled over the heated clay surface for sleeping.
It was bitterly cold, and the winter landscape was a pale, bleached yellow under a thin blue sky. Spindly poplars flanked the houses. Into this frozen world, the New Year’s festivities exploded with a burst of spectacular color. My friend painted auspicious inscriptions on strips of red paper that were pasted around the house. Local children spent hours making gorgeous lanterns out of wooden splints and colored tissue paper. Young women put on their best clothes, all bright pinks and reds.
I joined my friend and his family as they knelt in their orchard, pouring alcohol libations into the earth and burning paper money for their ancestors. In the kitchen, I watched his mother and sister cook the daily meals from scratch, conjuring noodles, steamed buns and dumplings from a sack of flour. (As a visitor, I was never allowed to help.) We ate pork from the pig they had slaughtered a few days before, already salted down in pottery jars.
For the New Year’s Eve dinner, there were chunks of meat and many other dishes including, of course, a whole fish, symbol of plenty, because “a fish every year” sounds the same in Chinese as “every year a surplus” (nian nian you yu). The next day, in keeping with local tradition, we ate huge boiled jiaozi dumplings filled with porkdipping them in soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil and garlic.
For days afterwards, we visited neighbors, huddling around their stoves or warming ourselves on the kang. We did little besides eat, drink tea, smoke cigarettes, play cards and gossip. For several nights, we followed the village boys clothed in their lion costume with its enormous painted head, writhing and convulsing as they danced before piles of burning paper cash and incense to the stirring beat of drums and cymbals, snaking their way through unlit lanes. Everyone gathered one night outside a temple as firecrackers were lit in a haze of splintering light and electrifying sound.
It turned out that I’d been exceptionally lucky because this was both my first and last chance to experience that kind of Chinese New Year. Not long afterwards, I heard from my friend that, following that brief revival, the villagers had given up the lion dances, lanterns and all that old stuff. People were on the move; his village had emptied out. Adults of working age had migrated to the cities in search of work. Only the elderly and the very young remained.
Food, of course, is at the heart of the New Year celebrations. Across China, customs vary widely. A whole fish on New Year’s Eve is almost universal, however, and is just one among numerous dishes whose names are auspicious puns, expressing the wish for the coming year to be one of luck, wealth, achievement and plenty. New Year’s cake, nian gao, is a play on the words for “year” and “higher”. The Cantonese also favor a dish made from dried oysters slow-cooked with dark hair moss, its name a homonym for “do good business and make loads of money”.
The main principle of the New Year’s Eve feast is, as one friend explained, “to have more food on the table than anyone can possibly eat”. In rural China, the holiday was once almost the only time when meat was lavishly eaten. In many areas, people would traditionally cook up great stews of treats, including pork belly, meatballs, deep-fried strips of pork in batter, quail eggs and more. For the rich, the food might be more refined: in The Mandarin Wayan account of growing up in a grand household in Beijing in the 1930s, San Francisco restaurateur Cecilia Chiang recalls dining with her family on pork shoulder braised in soy sauce and wine “to the quintessence of flavor”, clay-baked chicken, a fish “Of ambrosial delicacy” and a northern-style hotpot in which numerous ingredients were cooked, many of them shaped into spheres to symbolize togetherness.
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 would go to the public festivities in London’s Chinatown, followed by a slap-up dim sum lunch with friends. Later, I began to cook my own New Year’s Eve dinners. My Christmas cooking was already being colored by Chinese influencesthe turkey marinated in ginger, spring onion and Shaoxing wine, the mince pies shaped into little crescents like 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 easy (chicken), like the Year of the Ox (red-braised beef). For the Year of the Monkey, it was a Yunnan steam-pot chicken 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, for which I made pink glutinous rice rat-shaped dumplings stuffed with bean paste, with strawberry liquorice lace tails. (When I lifted the lid off 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 comfort in rituals that made me feel connected and sane. Mealtimes gave structure to the day and became something to look forward to, even more than normal. I bought cookbooks and cooked wildly, experimenting with Korean, Japanese and Romanian dishes. Chinese friends in London sent me zongzi, mooncakes, wontons and parcels filled with spiced ducks and Chinese vegetables. In return, I offered home-made radish cake and Lebanese pastries made in Chinese molds. These edible exchanges spun threads between us in our mutual isolations; each delivery lifted my spirits.
Most of all, deprived of China, I tried to recreate it in my kitchen. In lockdown, I marked the seasons and festivals of the lunar calendar more assiduously than ever before. Like a Russian oligarch living the life of an English lord of the manor or an American enacting a Parisian fantasy in Montmartre, I made my own spring-roll pancakes in spring, served steamed rice zongzi with amaranth and salty duck eggs for the Dragon Boat Festival in June, and cured my own pork before the New Year. For the first time, I made a Laba porridge of nuts and seeds on the eighth day of the last lunar month, concocting a recipe from a Manchu account of old Beijing.
Culture and rituals seep into you. Chinese food customs, which started as something fun and interesting for a foreigner like me, became emotionally necessary. In the past, I’d made seasonal offerings to the Kitchen God out of cultural interest: now, in lockdown, I found the ritual was imbued with emotion, with longing for China and absent friends. On WeChat, I posted photographs for friends in China of the food I was making at home. The message: “I’m still here, cooking the dishes we shared together, I’m thinking of you.”
Rituals often seem eternal. Everyone has their own picture of the ideal, unchanging Christmas or New Year. Yet our traditions are a swirling helix through time, shedding some aspects, gaining others. Rituals speak to our need for rootedness, yet they are constantly recreated to meet our present needs. The lunar new year was once mainly a time of rest and renewal for farmers; now it’s also a reunion for migrant workers and a marker of cultural identity for the Chinese diaspora. Immigrants to Britain of all faiths and none borrow elements of Christmas, a Christian (and now post-Christian) feast that grew out of pagan midwinter celebrations.
As that pandemic Chinese New Year approached in February 2021, I wondered how to celebrate the festival of reunion at a time of separation. At first, I considered making a miniature dinner, with a tiny steamed fish, and sliced pork and rice pudding steamed in diminutive bowls. But then I decided to throw a party anyway, cooking exactly as I would have done for a kitchenful of guests, before sending a photo of the food to friends in China and giving most of the physical food away. The idea of my companions sharing the feast with me, in their separate homes, made me happy in my solitude.
This year, life is looking up and I’ve been invited to celebrate with a Shanghainese friend who is one of the best cooks I know. It will be the Year of the Tiger and I’m hoping to bring my own contribution: perhaps a tiger-striped salad of shredded carrot and wood ear mushrooms and a tigery version of steamed glutinous rice dumplings, the sticky dough tinted orange with pumpkin juice and marbled with cocoa stripes.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book is “The Food of Sichuan”
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