Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Special Dish to Honor the Winter Solstice

I was raised in a traditional Chinese family. Every festival or social occasion would be celebrated and observed with religious detail. Like all the generations of my family before me, each ritual, each incantation, each altar setting, even the specific ‘food’ or other votive offering to a particular deity, would have to be executed to the tee.

The coming Winter Solstice (冬至) -- 21 December -- was one such occasion. In the past, the Winter Solstice celebration was regarded as far more important than the Chinese Lunar New Year.

As China was largely an agrarian society in those times, the festival held great importance for another reason. The weather on the day of festival was believed to presage the weather for the coming year -- a prime concern for farmers. For instance, the saying: “冬至冷,春暖;冬至暖,春”, foretold that “if the day was cold, we would have a warm Chinese Lunar New Year, and vice versa.” The Winter Solstice festival also marked the lengthening of the daylight hours, and thus the astronomical beginning of a new year. For all these reasons, it called for a grand celebration.

In Imperial China, the emperor would lead the country in prayers for good weather and fortune. Family members would be obliged to return home for a reunion dinner, and visit the graves of their ancestors for blessings and good fortune. Food-wise, the northern Chinese would prepare meat dumplings or wonton (馄饨)as part of the celebratory menu; and for the southern Chinese, the tangyuan (汤圆).

In my family, this became another excuse for a celebratory feast. In the weeks leading up to the actual day, the word “九大簋” would often be heard on the family elders’ mouths; the last character “gui” being the ancient Chinese description of a large “food urn”, and “jiu da” meaning “nine major ingredients”. Simply put, the phrase means that everyone would have to decide what to prepare for the feast, and someone would have to be put in charge.

This year, the Winter Solstice would fall on 21 December 2012, and Old Hong Kong Legend has specially created a 九大簋” for this special occasion. In it, nine different types of ingredients such as fresh water carp balls, winter shoot, dongpo rou (东坡肉, mushroom, and abalone are placed in a large bowl and braised in abalone sauce.

There was a nice twist to the traditional tangyuan: the red bean was cooked to a paste, and acted as a bed on which to rest the tangyuan. The flavor of the red bean paste was more robust with a hint of dried tangerine peel.

Old Hong Kong Legend
#02-18 Raffles City
Telephone: 6336 3038