By: Tony Zheng, Paul Geary, Alexis Kmak, and Betsy Rice
The Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year Festival, is celebrated in the early months of each year. It begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar (Zhiyuan). The Chinese people have many customs and traditions in their celebration during this time of year. One of the most important aspects of their celebration is the food. Tangyuan, dumplings, Nian Gao, and spring rolls are among the most popular foods eaten during the Chinese Spring Festival each year.
The Tangyuan, which is a sweet and sticky rice ball with a sweet filling, is a traditional dessert served in the Chinese New Year. The name of what people choose to call the Tangyuan can vary in different regions, but generally people call it Tangyuan. The sound of the Tangyuan in Chinese language is very close to “tuan yuan”, meaning the reunion of the family.
Many people in the south eat Tangyuan due to the cultivation practices of southern versus northern China. According to Jonathan D. Spence, a well-known scholar who focuses on Chinese history, southern China had myriad rivers, canals, adequate climate and irrigation streams to support rice cultivation (Xueying). Due to northern China’s harsher climate and environment condition, rice cultivation and sweet rice cultivation was far less popular than the cultivation of wheat and millet (Xueying). Although people in northern China can more easily get an access to rice now due to transportation and technological advancements, their taste has been dramatically influenced by the dominance of wheat and millet in their cuisines since ancient times, and therefore they still prefer foods made with wheat and millet.
When cooked as a dessert, Tangyuan has a very sweet flavor that can vary greatly. Traditionally, the sweet filling inside the Tangyuan is made from sesames, peanuts, and red beans, but nowadays, producers also try to combine chocolate and other western sweets into the tiny rice balls.
Another popular food to eat in China during the Spring Festival is dumplings, especially in the northern provinces (Song). Traditionally, families “spend New Year’s Eve preparing the dumplings and will eat them at midnight” (Wei). However, depending on the area, they may be eaten both as a main dish and as a snack during different parts of the festival (Song). For example, in some areas in the northern mountains, families eat them every morning for breakfast from the first day through the fifth day (Song).
Dumplings are made with fairly simple ingredients. The dough for the thin outer shell is made of a mixture of flour and water (Song). The fillings could have a variety of different ingredients including beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, sea cucumber, and vegetables (Song). Additionally, the fillings may be either sweet or salty (Song).
This simple food is not only a delicious treat that Chinese families enjoy during the Spring Festival, but it also represents more to the Chinese than meets the eye. The Chinese name for dumplings, jiaozi, literally means “a transitional period from the old year to the newly-coming year” (Song). Eating dumplings, which look like silver ingots, represents that people will expand their wealth in the coming year (Wei). A common tradition is to place coins in some of the dumplings before they are cooked, and whoever gets a dumpling with a coin in it is said to have good luck and to make a lot of money in the coming year (Song). Eating dumplings also represents the reunion of family and friends (Song). Though dumplings are made with simple and basic ingredients, they play a huge role in the traditions and culture of the Spring Festival.
Nian Gao is another popular food that is consumed during the Spring Festival celebration. Nian Gao is essentially a rice cake that can have many different fillings. The history of Nian Gao dates back thousands of years starting in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) (Song). When Nian Gao first became a food of the Spring Festival it was used as a sacrifice. This sacrifice was for the heaven and took place on the Eve of the Spring Festival. According to legend Nian Gao can be used to bribe the Kitchen God. The Kitchen god returns to heaven a week before the Spring Festival begins. If the Kitchen God comes back with a negative report on the families behavior from the prior year, the coming year will bring bad luck. Today Nian Gao is eaten and enjoyed on the Eve of the Spring Festival and comes in an assortment of flavors. Nian Gao, like the dumpling, is often consumed because its name means increases in wealth in the year to come (Wei).
The main ingredient in Nian Gao is rice, but people will add different ingredients to their liking. In different provinces of China, different ingredients are added to the rice cake. In Beijing and Hebei provinces dates, cooked beans, peanuts, and sunflower seeds will be cooked into Nian Gao (Song). In Shanxi and Inner Mongolia many people add smashed dates and bean fillings. In these two provinces Nian Gao is also fried rather than steamed (Song). In the different provinces the taste of Nian Gao changes; in some areas it may be sweet, while in others it may taste salty (Song).
Nian Gao is a very easy dish to make during the Spring Festival, because very few ingredients are needed. To make steamed Nian Gao, one only needs five ingredients; water, brown sugar, rice, vegetable oil, and almond extract. The other ingredients used such as dates or seeds are not essential ingredients. Chowhound has a simple recipe of how to make steamed Nian Gao.
Spring rolls are one of the most popular Chinese food dishes and have also universalized to Chinese restaurants around the globe. In China, people in the north part consume more spring rolls than people in the south part. Although the Chinese eat the spring roll all year, the roll is named after the Spring Festival (Wei). A common misperception of the spring roll is that it is only eaten during the Spring Festival, but in actuality the Chinese people eat the Spring roll year-round. The typical spring roll consists of various vegetables that are wrapped up in rice paper. They are fried to a golden color, which symbolizes wealth (Wei).
Here are directions to make a standard spring roll.
Tangyuan, dumplings, Nian Gao, and spring rolls are some of the most popular foods eaten during the Chinese Spring Festival. These foods have their own roles in the festival’s celebration both within individual families and the culture as a whole. Also, the culture around these different foods and their popularity can vary greatly throughout different regions of China because the difference in the crop-cultivation in the old time does shape the tastes of people in the difference region. The foods of the Spring Festival give a glimpse of just how rich and diverse the culture of a country that can often be overgeneralized by Americans truly is.
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