Welcome To The Year Of The Rabbit

21st January 2011

In the long slow haul between Christmas and Easter we’re short of something to celebrate in the Western calendar.

The Chinese New Year approaches, though, so take the opportunity to embrace multi-culturalism…

Chinese New Year falls in 2011 on 3 February. It’s a moveable feast, fixed according to a calendar that tracks both the Gregorian and lunar-solar calendar systems. And feast is literally the word: food is a hugely important part of the celebrations (and you don’t have to be Chinese to enjoy it).

Customs and traditions naturally vary across the regions, but it’s a general habit to prepare by thoroughly cleaning the house – literally sweeping away ill-luck – to clear the way for the arrival of good fortune. In Taoist households in particular, gods are ‘sent’ to report on the family’s behaviour to senior deities; Zao Jun the Kitchen God is particularly important here, and sweetmeats are often prepared to bribe Zao Jun into delivering a good report to the Jade Emperor.

Fish features prominently on the menu; it’s as important as the western tradition of goose or turkey at Christmas. It’s both eaten and displayed on New Year’s Eve – the pronunciation of ‘fish’ (魚yú) is very similar to that of ‘surpluses’ (餘 yú), making it heavy with the symbolism that undercuts so much of the culinary input to the season’s menus. If the head and tail are still attached, then the fish is a further symbol, for both a good beginning and a good ending in the year ahead. Similarly certain citrus fruits are served because the words for them sound like bringers of good fortune, such as ‘luck’ and ‘wealth’. There’s a visual element too – Spring Rolls, for example, represent monetary fortune because they look like gold nuggets – and an emotional context: the serving of a whole chicken during the festivities promises that the family will remain together throughout the coming year. Noodles must remain uncut, so that a long life is guaranteed. Dumplings are popular too, because the cook puts luck inside them as they are prepared, and the recipient later eats that good fortune.

You could, of course, cook these things at home, but unless you have a] decorated the dining room with red lanterns, b] hung paper cutouts with couplets on themes such as wealth and long life on doors and windows and c] acquired a lifetime’s experience of preparing Chinese cuisine and the interpretation of the symbolic nuances you’ll be on shaky ground. Far better to appease your own kitchen gods by letting someone else do the cooking. Most local Oriental restaurants will be welcoming the New Year; some with lion dances or dragon processions, or live music, or other traditional customs; all with delicious food. Most probably won’t indulge in the traditional firecracker conclusion to the evening, but you can’t have it all. Go on, indulge.

The underlying theme of this time of year is of reconciliation, hope for the future, peace and happiness to all mankind. It’s a great idea. Now where have I heard it before?…

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