Well, if there are rows of flayed ducks lining the streets, then it must be Chinese New Year. The whole city has been transformed into an enormous outdoor charcuterie – every footpath is lined with makeshift wooden frames covered with the oddly attractive looking bodies of drying ducks, head and feet intact, tiny ribcages on display. The ducks are tagged around the neck or one webbed foot with the name of the purchaser so that when they’re ready (five or six days, in cold dry weather) they can be collected.
Look up as you walk and instead of ducks you’ll see doorstop-sized hunks of pork, soaked in brine and drying in the cold winter air, pierced with bent wire coathangers and hung alongside the week’s washing.
There is a terrific do-it-yourself aspect to all of this – just the same way my mother still makes her own Christmas puddings every year, many families in Shanghai follow in an age-old tradition and make their own dried goods for Chinese New Year.
The fish I can understand, because the word for fish (鱼 yú) sounds just the same as the word for prosperity or surplus (余 yú). So you should eat some fish, not all of it mind, and you’ll be sure to have a surplus of wealth in the new year. The favoured fish around town is an alarming looking giant eel, split neatly down the middle, flattened like a skateboard and strung up on a clothes rail in the street to dry, like an enormous sharply toothed silver sail.
And don’t forget to buy your rabbit ears and flashing, singing, battery-operated rabbit toys. Enjoy!
I have the worst firecracker hangover headache today. After six nights of interrupted sleep, I can tell you that my Chinese neighbours’ favourite times to let off fireworks are –
1. Ten minutes after I fall asleep
2. Half an hour before I usually wake up
3. Between 1am and 2am
I can’t fool them by going to bed later and getting up earlier, or by turning out all the lights and pretending I’m not home. What I really need, other than coffee and aspirin and about 10 hours more sleep, is a double-glazed apartment 50 floors above the ground, where the muted sound of firecrackers fifty floors below will be no louder than the coffee machine starting up.
Also, I wish that the f***er whose car alarm goes off beneath my bedroom window EVERY SINGLE TIME a cracker goes off, will come home to find the battery dead (oh! I wish!!) and all his pot plants dead, and the paint on his car pockmarked by falling debris.
Enough ranting. On to food. At least Chinese New Year comes with some fantastic street snacks that make up for all the sleep deprivation. After years of shift work I can tell you that it’s not coffee that wakes up your brain, but SUGAR. These sugary little beauties are called Crystal Sugar Hawthorns (bīng táng shān zhā 冰糖山楂) and I wish they were available all year round, but that’s what makes them so special.
Hawthorns are a member of the rose family and the red berries are the size of a large, round, rosehip. Eaten raw they are incredibly sour and quite astringent, but rolled in oil then confectioner’s sugar and left to dry gives the crunchy, sour hawthorns a crisp sweet white crust. Like a miniature sugared toffee apple.
They’re quite hard to find, I bought mine from a tiny stall at the Yu Gardens. 5 yuan/bag.
The first firecrackers began before the sun had even poked its head over the top of my building. They’d been lit in the lane behind our house, and as a way of being woken from a deep sleep it had about the same effect on my central nervous system as, say, close range artillery fire, and about the same level of extreme jumping-out-of-bed adrenaline rush, the kind when your legs move you before your mind even knows what’s going on. When my mind caught up, with the phrase ‘What the…..Chinese New Year!’ I was already halfway down the stairs.
Other than these sporadic outbursts of firecrackers, Shanghai is eerily quiet. No traffic, no horns, no whistles, no bicycle bells. Everyone’s at home, getting ready for a big dinner tonight, or out of town. The first job of the day is to get to the wet market before it closes early, because tonight I am making enough (dumplings) to feed sixteen. Actually, I’m just making the fillings, and then I’m planning on showing the other fifteen people how to stuff and fold the dumplings, which is way easier than doing them all myself!
It’s going to be a very social way to spend Chinese New Year’s eve, sitting around gossiping and filling dumplings, and quite a traditional Chinese way to spend the evening. All of our Chinese friends get misty-eyed when they think about being back at home, sitting around a big table with their families and making jiaozi together.
Last year, our Chinese friends Steven and Maria (not their Chinese names, as you might have guessed) took us home to their house and their mothers taught my whole family how to make jiaozi. To my surprise, the stand-out jiaozi-maker turned out to be my husband, who has no interest in Chinese cooking whatsoever. So on these jiaozi occasions, he gets the job of Head Teacher. Every family has their own, often quite different, recipe for jiaozi filling, and I’ve given the one taught to me by Steven’s mum below – it’s a beauty.
|Firecracker store, Nanchang Lu|
The second job of the day is to stop by the firecracker store and stock up for tonight before they sell out. There is already an alarming supply of firecrackers on my dining table, provided by the guys in the office downstairs, who assure me that it is perfectly safe to keep them inside the house. Sure. So now we have a whole arsenal sitting in the house, and I can’t quite believe I’m going to let my children take part in a wholesale firecracker extravaganza, I’m an Emergency doctor, for god’s sake, I’m supposed to be responsible about these things. In my hometown, the sale of fireworks is completely illegal. But this is China, and you can do whatever you like. Mind you, it will be the collective Dads who we set out on the sacrificial altar of explosives to light the damn things, not the small children who have fingers they may later need.
|A small selection of our fireworks…..|
I look for the safety instructions on the box of fireworks, turning it over and over without seeing anything. Eventually I find it, but it’s so small you might as well not bother.
|Ah…. there it is! Kneel down before the almighty firework box, don’t smoke over the top of it, sing it a ballad then run away, and afterwards, dispose of your blown-off fingers in the bin. Got it.|
Dumplings – Jiaozi
- 200g pork mince
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- dash white pepper
- 2 tsp finely chopped ginger
- 3 finely chopped scallions
- 2 tsp Shaoxing wine
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- half small bunch of coriander, finely chopped including stems and roots
- 300g chinese greens, finely chopped (choose any of bok choy, gai lan, spinach leaves, cabbage)
- 50 circular dumpling wrappers
- In a large bowl combine pork and all other ingredients except the chopped chinese greens
- mix well to combine, then stir 100 times around the bowl (no kidding! it gives the filling a smooth consistency!)
- add the finely chopped greens and mix well
- refrigerate until ready
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil
- Gently lower 6-8 dumplings at a time into pot, cooking for 3-4 minutes or until dumplings float to the surface
- Drain and place in bowls
- Chinese black vinegar for dipping
- Sticky Black Onions to accompany (recipe follows below)
- Any vegetables can be used: my last Chinese teacher’s family favoured carrot and baby celery, our Shanghainese friends favour a combination of green Chinese vegetables, and I’ve eaten some great dumplings filled with a combination of pork and several kinds of mushrooms.
- The meat to vegetable ratio is usually 1:2 by volume, feel free to use more meat if you want a denser, meatier filling
- Use any minced meat you prefer, pork is traditional in China so that is what I’ve used, beef, shrimp or chicken will work equally well if you prefer those.
- 2 large white onions
- 2 tsp oil for frying
- 3 tsp sugar
- 1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar
- slice onions lengthwise into curved strips
- heat cooking oil in a wok over medium heat
- fry onions, stirring regularly, until dark brown and beginning to char around edges
- add sugar and stir constantly for 1 minute
- add vinegar and stir constantly until reduced and sticky
All the internet buzz this week about Ophiucus, the ‘new star sign’ of the Western zodiac, has had everyone’s astrological knickers in a major knot. (you can read this simple explanation of why you don’t need to change your star sign, followed by pages of entertaining loony comments)
Can’t think what to get someone special for Christmas? Don’t stress, follow Chinese custom and give them a big red , a red envelope filled with cold hard cash. Isn’t it interesting, that we describe cash like this, suggesting it is emotionless and impersonal. Giving cash in China has none of the negative connotations we ascribe to it, in fact, for most people it’s far preferable to have a hong bao than a gift. I mean, a gift is really risky isn’t it? What if the recipient doesn’t like it? But everyone likes cash! Giving out hong baos must be the most stress-free way to complete your Christmas shopping, but personally, I’ve found it very difficult to give hong baos – it goes against the western tradition of gift-giving I grew up with and it feels thoughtless and uncaring. Eventually it took a story about a friend’s Chinese mother-in-law to finally convince me it was OK to give hong baos. Last Christmas he spent ages laboriously making her a hand-made card, to show just how much he respected her and how highly he thought of her. She opened the envelope, pulled out the card, and after looking at it for about a nanosecond went back to the envelope to make sure she hadn’t missed the cash inside it. As his wife explained, she would rather have had a hong bao than a hand-made card any day.
There are a few rules to observe though. Hong baos are appropriate for birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, and Christmas, if that’s your thing. Your cash should be in crisp new notes, bank fresh, and whatever denomination you can afford, multiples of four are bad luck (the word for four is similar to the word for death), multiples of eight are really lucky, and rounded numbers are preferable. So 800 yuan would be the perfect gift, but 40 yuan would be like a double slap in the face.
And because next Chinese New Year (peak hong bao giving season) is the Year of the Rabbit, rabbit themed hong baos are popping up everywhere. Whatever design you choose, stuff it with money and then hand it over. Recipient stisfaction guaranteed.