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
In Australia, home fireworks are illegal and I’m guessing there are a lot of one-handed amateur fire-work enthusiasts who can explain why. Here in China, however, anything goes. Not that home fireworks are strictly legal, it’s just that everyone ignores the rules and sets them off anyway. But in such a densely populated city, where should you set them off? A level, fire-proof surface with no passers-by would be ideal……..how about the middle of the road? OK, OK so there are a few passers by, on bikes and on scooters, but they can swerve can’t they??
Place your box of fireworks in the middle of the road. Remember not to bother about the frequently crossing powerlines overhead. Light the wick with your cigarette just as a car passes. Retreat to a safe distance of 2 metres.
Watch with excitement, and with your ears covered, as your box takes off! At least twenty fireworks, one after the other, rocket forth – stars, peonies, chyrsanthemums, spirals. and pony tails. All-banging, all-whistling, all-smoking fun! (avoid the temptation to go and poke your box with a live Super Sparkler when one appears to mis-fire).
Can you imagine what it would be like inside a firework? Now magnify the noise, the hiss, the explosion, and the light by about a thousand. That’s Chinese New Year. For hours we were surrounded by a 360 degree cacophony of light, noise, sulphur and smoke, whistles, hummers, crackles, shells and cheers. The sky turned red with smoke, and the Tiger felt well-welcomed. Happy New Year!
If you want to buy some firecrackers for New Year’s Eve, look no further than your local fruit shop. You’re very likely to find that a makeshift stall selling fireworks has sprung up beside the bananas and baskets of tangerines, just like this one on Nanchang Lu.
Now if you only have 5 yuan, that will get you about 50 short sparklers. Enough to keep 2 children occupied for say, 5 minutes. And requiring about 150 matches.
If you have 20 yuan you can buy 10 Super Sparklers, they shoot flames from the tip. They’re about 80cm long, alarming easy to light and much more entertaining, although slightly more hazardous.
Should you have 100 yuan, you can have a big fat box of really noisy, totally unregulated, full-on fireworks. Enough to keep one husband and about six other helpful blokes very happy.
Near the Yu Gardens on Fuyou Lu is the kind of market it should be illegal for me to go anywhere near. What a place! Commonly known as the ‘Commodities market’ it sells every bit of cheap plastic tat your heart could desire. From the outside it’s a fairly non-descript peach concrete building, with a few lantern stalls near the entrances. But the thousands of motorbikes, scooters and bicycles parked outside, and the teeming hordes of people coming and going suggest that this is not your average peach concrete building (certainly plenty of those in Shanghai). It’s five floors of noisy, cramped, packed, busy, bustling shops selling plastic bags, rubber bands, mittens, lanterns, fireworks, party poppers, wigs, underwear, wedding trinkets, and children’s costumes.
Need a USB hub shaped like a cow? It moos every time you connect it! And how can you resist when it’s only 20 yuan??
Year of the Tiger undies? Here they are!
A word of warning though – bring your sharpest Shanghai elbows, leave your personal space at the front door, and if you smell smoke………bolt like hell. The combination of all that plastic and fireworks with five thousand smoking shoppers could be quite explosive.
We just spent a weekend in Tongli – it’s a small town west of Shanghai with a maze of small canals and old stone houses. Despite the bitter cold a happy wedding group set off to the ear-splitting sound of hundreds of confetti fire-crackers, followed by an entourage of friends and family as they walked beside the canal on their way to good food and a day of celebration.