Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Winter Solstice - Chinese Christmas

The Foochows celebrate (in Sibu in the 50's and 60's and perhaps today too) the mid winter festival in a simple way. During my childhood,my mother would grind the rice flour using the stone mill,in the early morning with all of us kids surrounding her and the grinder. We all wanted to take turns to pour the rice and water into the opening and another would want to turn the grinder with the long pole.

After completing the task of grinding the rice, my mother would then proceed to make the peanut and soya bean coating for the rice balls.

She would dry roast the peanuts and the soya beans and then grind them with the stone mill again. It was definitely a tedious and time consumer task then. Today with all the domestic appliances we do make these glutinous rice balls or tangyuan any more from scratch. We just buy all the ingredients in the wet market or tamu.

I remember we had a lot of fun as a family whenever we had a festival to celebrate. It was even better when our maternal grandmother visited us and we would all clammer around her begging for stories of China.

How is Tāngyuán made then? In the by gone days the wet, newly ground glutinous rice would have to be drained in a white cloth bag until the right consistency was reached. Then we would all gather together to make little balls with our hands. Some of us were more adept in making them, others not. The balls were then cooked in boiling water.Once these balls floated at the top of the boiling water they were deemed cooked and all the kids would scream with delightbecause that was the time for us to take the balls and roll them in the peanut, soya bean and sugar coating.

This wonderful coat was the joy of our life. The thicker the coat the better the taste.

Today whenever Christmas is near, I would make this dish and it is a happy time of bonding for my children and I. Sometimes the Si yang (Foochow Tangyuan) would be served as a desert for my Christmas dinner.

Historically, a number of different names were used to refer to the tangyuan. During the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty, the name was officially settled as yuanxiao, a name derived from the Yuanxiao festival, also known as the Lantern Festival. This name literally means "first evening", being the first full moon after Chinese New Year, which is always a new moon. This name prevails in northern China.

In southern China, however, the prevailing names are tangyuan or tangtuan. Legend has it that during Yuan Shikai's rule (1912-1916), Yuan disliked the name Yuanxiao because it sounded identical to "remove Yuan" (袁削), and so mandated that the name Tangyuan be used instead. This name literally means "round balls in soup". Tangtuan similarly means "round dumplings in soup".

However our Foochow ancestors had left behind this legend to us.

In ancient days scholars went to sit for the civil examinations in Beijing. Those who were top of the class were rewarded with the highest civil service positions. The hero of our legend went to such an exam but he failed. On his return journey he fell from a cliff due to extreme exhaustion.

He was however saved by a monkey queen. As he had lost his memory he remained in the monkey colony and married the monkey queen. Meanwhile his Chinese wife was inconsoleable and made great attempts to look for him.

After many years, she rumours of a half man half monkey living in the high mountains. She believed that it was her husband. So she deviced a plan to lure him back to their village.

It was mid winter and animals were looking for food. She thought that it was a good time to execute her plan. She made small marble like glutinous rice balls coated with soya bean and peanut powder and she stuck them on the trees leading from the mountains to her home. She got the neighbours to get a net ready to capture the half man half monkey.

Her plan worked as her husband found the rice balls and ate every one of them until he reached the village. The villagers threw the net over him and captured him.

In time, the scholar regained his memory and he was reunited with the family. From then onwards, the Chinese would celebrate the festival of mid winter or the Winter Solstice festival.

Other versions of tangyuan

In both filled and unfilled tangyuan, the main ingredient is glutinous rice flour. For filled tangyuan, the filling can be either sweet or savoury.

Sweet fillings can be:

Sesame paste (ground black sesame seeds mixed with sugar and lard) - the most common filling;
Red bean paste;
Chopped peanuts and sugar.
Savoury filling is usually a pork meat ball.

Tangyuan is cooked in boiling water. Filled tangyuan is served along with the water in which it is boiled (hence the "soup" in the name).

Unfilled tangyuan is served as part of a sweet soup dessert. Common types include:

Red bean soup
Black sesame soup
Ginger and rock sugar;
Fermented glutinous rice (醪糟 or 酒釀), Sweet Osmanthus and rock sugar.

The most famous varieties come from Ningbo and Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. However, they are traditionally eaten throughout China.

Originally, tangyuan was associated with the Lantern Festival. However, it has also come to be associated with the Winter Solstice and Chinese New Year in various regions. Today, the food is eaten all year round. Mass-produced tangyuan is commonly found in the frozen food section of Asian supermarkets in China and overseas.

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