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January 23, 2004


Mitch Mills

I've never partaken of this particular New Year's dish/custom, but then I was on the Mainland, left in 2000, and it hadn't caught on there back then apparently. When folks "toss them with chopsticks, as high as possible", does most of the salad end up on the floor, or is there an unstated "(without having it end up on the floor)" after that sentence?

This time of year I always jones for jiaozi and the big-extended-family-all-together-assembly-line-process that goes into making them. I've had a dozen or so different little old Chinese grannies or other august authorities instruct me over the years on the proper way to fold them. There are an amazing number of variations. One of my favorites has the dumplings end up looking like little mice.

Jiaozi-making reminds me of nothing so much as a Mexican tamalada. I guess the idea is that when you have so many relatives sitting around during the holidays, you might as well put them all to work making labor-intensive dishes.

The other thing I miss is the great fireworks displays they had in Shanghai. They put every show I've ever seen in the States to shame, kind of like if you took the finale part, doubled or tripled the amount of fireworks going off at one time, and extended it to an hour and a half or so of constant incredible explosions, supplemented by the tons of freelance fireworks everyone is setting off. Truly astounding.

Belle Waring

The salad is supposed to be tossed as high as possible without going on the floor, but some accidents are expected. The fireworks here in Singapore are awesome too, although not supplemented by people doing their own, since there is a stiff fine. In the papers they have special ads for whole-family trips to nearby Bintan, fireworks included, so everyone can have the fun of lighting them. As for jiaozi, I don't see them so much around here, though I know what you're talking about. I need to be invited over to eat with a few more grannies, I think.

Mitch Mills

Ah, I should have known that Singapore would not look kindly on freelance fireworkery. It was forbidden in Shanghai too, but needless to say completely unenforced.

And come to think of it, dumplings are more of a northern food anyway. Groups of students often volunteered to come over and cook a meal for me and the other foreign teacher in our town, and it was the students from up north who were the champion jiaozi makers. The southern kids were much more into fish.

Also, I remember one Chinese New Year's, I and two fellow foreign teachers I had met in Shanghai were travelling north to Shandong. On the way we spent several days in a small town with a student's family. It was a great time, although I don't think I've ever been so cold for such an extended period (heating was expensive and anyway everyone was really into fresh air, as in leaving the windows open when it was 30 outside).

On the first day of the New Year the father cooked a beautiful whole fish and brought it to the table. My cohorts and I were eager to eat it as because the number of people to be fed (extended family plus us guests) was large, most dishes were served cold or were only vaguely warm by the time we ate them. The fish was steaming hot. Also, we had been plied for the previous few days with a lot of "special" food, requiring us to choke down quite a bit of rather unappetizing things in order to be polite. The fish by contrast was prepared simply and looked delicious.

(Don't get me wrong, I really love Chinese food, and I'm not squeamish, but I usually found that the stuff served when Chinese were trying to impress us laowai types was just expensive and unusual, without being particularly good. I grew to loathe banquets because of this.)

So as we eagerly took up our chopsticks to dig into this gorgeous fish the student quickly told us that no we couldn't eat it, it was just for everyone to look at and admire and it symbolized bounty (because the word for bounty/plenty sounds like the word for fish, naturally).

She then told us that we would eat it at the end of the week. We ended up calling it The Patience Fish and would eye it longingly each day as we forced down more sea cucumber. The family laughed and laughed when I translated our name for the fish for them, and ended up telling all their neighbors and friends and relatives how funny we were.

Belle Waring

Errg, sea cucumber. Yes, Chinese banquets do emphasize the special at the expense of the tasty. I mean, I'm sure fresh abalone is good and all, but out of a can? Would anyone like it if it weren't some homonym for hella bucks? And sea cucumber just falls into a category of jelly-like foods I really can't deal with too well. I don't like tripe, either, or stuff that has been jelled into cubes with agar-agar. Too jelly-y and sproingy. Your story about the patience fish is sad...


a small correction- 'lo hei' isn't Mandarin, but Cantonese. I readily concede however, that with us Chinese, these terms invariably revolve money, as you suggest.

Mitch is right in saying that jiaozi is a Northern staple, which means you won't see too many families in Singapore organizing dumpling assembly lines, since almost all Singaporean Chinese are of Southern stock. I'm Hakka, so my mum, as did my grandmother, makes yam 'abacus beads' (they taste better than they sound). But unfortunately they are as rare as Hakka Chinese in Singapore. Maybe you can think of a different recipe after having tried some.

Mitch Mills

Yam abacus beads sound fine to me. Yams are one of my favorite vegetables, as long as they don't come out of a can or get drenched in sugar/syrup/marshmallows/etc.

And I didn't think the Patience Fish episode was sad. It was great getting to spend a week with the family, they were incredibly warm and hospitable folk.

Granted it was also pretty stressful because we were all relatively new to China and afraid of making faux pas or unintentionally offending the family. Also, their apartment was pretty small so we were all living on top of each other, and we were constantly being fussed over to make sure we were comfortable and felt welcome, so we felt like there was never any down time. That's why we ate the sea cucumber, jellyfish, etc., even though I now know that it would have been fine to just say we didn't like it. In fact at the end of the week the student and her mother told us they hated sea cucumber.

The Patience Fish added a somewhat absurd quality to the dinners which was actually quite welcome. We would catch each others eyes and then surreptiously glance over at the fish longingly and try to keep from bursting out laughing.

If I remember correctly, we didn't have a jiaozi assembly line there (we were in the southern part of Jiangsu province, still pretty Southern in its ways), but we did all make these little sweet dumplings together. They're little round balls (so no room for creative folding) and inside is sweet black sesame paste and the outside is a rice flour dough and you serve them in a hot soup. They're quite good, but I can't for the life of me remember what they're called right now.


tangyuan- and these glutinous balls come with all sorts of fillings, but black sesame, red bean and peanut paste predominate. We have them during the Winter Solstice, they signify 'reunion/unity'.

Personally my siblings and I abhor sea cucumber, but my parents (and the older generation) tend to view it as a delicacy. However sea cucumber does add a fuller dimension to soup.

Belle Waring

Pinky--thanks for the correction on "lo hei". My knowledge was gleaned from menus and therefore prone to inacurracy. I know there are a few places selling abacus beads reccommended in Makansutra but I haven't tried any yet. I have been meaning to, though, because they sound great. Are tangyuan those same ones that are served in syrup? I love those things, especially the black sesame ones. Mmm. They sell some pretty good ones up at Bukit Merah, maybe I should go tomorrow, and Zoe can go to the library...

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