Sticky New Year?

Call it the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Hare, as you please. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins today. Let’s hope that this will be a peaceful year. And, of course, we want more. We also want the new year to bring us well-being, happiness and prosperity. In fact, the most popular new year’s greetings among the Chinese are:

新年好 xīnnián hǎo Be Well on New Year

新年快乐 xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year

恭禧发财 gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations on Auspiciousness and Prosperity

You already know that (hǎo) means “good”. You could have guessed that (xīn) means “new” and (nián) means “year”. It’s a cinch to say 新年好 (xīnnián hǎo). You could also try 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year), where 快乐(kuàilè) means “happiness”. 发财 (fācái) means to get rich.

More often than not, when the Chinese people make the rounds to visit their relatives and friends on this day, they will wag their clutched hands in front of their chest and holler jubilantly:
恭禧恭禧! (gōngxǐ gōngxǐ Congratulations!), or 恭禧发财! (gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations! Hope you’ll get rich!)

And, don’t forget about promotions. (People’s wants and desires have no bounds.) It’s customary for the Chinese to serve a sweet rice cake on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. This 年糕 (niángāo New Year cake) is made of glutinous rice flour. Unlike a sponge cake or even a dense pecan pie, this is a viscous, sticky mass that cools down to a rocky hard slab. What’s the significance of eating this particular cake? Well, the word for cake is (gāo), which sounds exactly like (gāo), the word for high or height, which indicates a high position. The word (shēng) means to rise or to elevate. So, 高升 (gāo shēng) means to be elevated to a high position. Therefore, 年糕 (niángāo) is taken to represents the phrase 年年高升 (nián nián gāo shēng), or “promotion year after year”. The Chinese believe that things you do on the first few days of the Lunar New Year have important bearing on the rest of the year. The hope is that by eating this cake at the start of the year, you will be more apt to get a promotion this year. By the same token, there are also things that one should not say or do during these crucial days for fear that they would bring bad luck. This is, of course, pure superstition.

As it turns out, (nián year) is a homonym of (nián), which means “sticky”. You can use it as a mnemonic for sounding out the more complicated character (nián). Actually, the word (zhān) has the exact same meaning as (nián). Many Chinese use these two characters interchangeably.

Please don’t get me wrong. The sticky sweet rice cake is actually a delicious treat. You’d cut it into small wedges or sticks, dip the pieces in beaten egg then deep fry them in hot oil. Take a small bite. When you try to pull the remainder away from your mouth, it will draw out like stringy melted cheese. The sweet, warm, soft and moist interior part of the rice cake, combined with the rich aroma of the deep-fried exterior, rewards your palate and heart with an indescribable fulfilling sensation.

I have a simple recipe for making the sweet rice cake but I won’t give it to you. For one thing, it’s about as wholesome as a glazed Krispy Kreme donut. Secondly, it’s so sweet that most likely one small wedge of it will satisfy your sweet tooth, and you’d wonder what to do with the leftover. Last but not the least, it’s a potential choking hazard for those of you who are uninitiated and fail to take small bites of this sticky dessert and chew well.

Instead, I’ll give you an assignment – Look up the Chinese character for rabbit in your dictionary, textbook or supplemental Chinese instruction book. (The answer will be in my next weekly post.)

May you all have a new year filled with peace, health, happiness, prosperity, and promotions, too!

Dumplings or pot-stickers?

February is around the corner, and yet I’m still getting season’s greeting cards from friends and relatives. The greeting cards convey best wishes for a happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit. As it is, the Chinese Lunar New Year falls on February 3 this year. It is customary for families to reunite and enjoy a big feast together the night before. And many families, especially those who came from the northern part of China, will be making and eating dumplings and pot-stickers. These delicious bites are particularly fitting for the occasion as they take on the shape of gold ingots, and are taken as a sign of prosperity in the coming year. Think of the fortune cookies you’ve been getting at the Chinese restaurants. They are also made in the shape of gold ingots.

 

The dumplings are called 饺子(jiǎozi). They are usually steamed or cooked in boiling water. The pot-stickers, 锅贴(guōtiē), are pan-fried dumplings. Some recipes ask you to steam the dumplings then pan-fry them. I prefer to cook and pan-fry the pot-stickers in one step. If you have an hour or so to spare, you could make a batch of these tidbits yourself. If you can gather a couple friends to do this together, it will be so much more fun. There will be more mouths to feed, but you can cut down the time it takes to form the dumplings. Although they are called pot-stickers, you don’t really want the dumplings to stick to the pot. Therefore, a non-stick frying pan is called for. The following recipe uses cooked shrimp meat and does not include any raw meat. It is safe for use in a high school cooking class, except for students or teachers who are allergic to seafood.

Filling

1 lb Green Cabbage
1 Tbsp. Vegetable Oil for stir-frying the cabbage
1/2 tsp. Salt
5-6 stalks Green Onions (cleaned and finely chopped)
10 stalks Chinese Garlic Chives (optional)
1/2 lb. small cooked shrimp, finely chopped
1 tsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Sesame Seed Oil (optional)
1/4 tsp. Ground Black Pepper
2 tsp cornstarch

Wrappers

1 package Extra-thick Gyoza Wrappers (about 34 per package.)
 (Gyoza is the Japanese word for jiǎozi.)

 For pan-frying

3 Tbsp. Corn Oil for frying the pot-stickers

Sauce for Dipping

3 Tbsp Soy sauce
1 Tbsp. Vinegar
½ tsp. Water
1/8 tsp. Sesame Seed Oil (optional)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (optional)

Steps:

 1. Cut the cabbage leaves into very thin shreds.

 Heat 1 Tbsp. of corn oil in a frying pan at MEDIUM HIGH until hot. Add the shredded cabbage and the 1/2 tsp. salt to the pan and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water, cover and cook 3 to 4 minutes until the cabbage looks limp. Do not overcook. Turn off the heat. When the cabbage has cooled down, transfer it to a cutting board and chop it finely.

2. Into a large mixing bowl, add the chopped cabbage, green onions, shrimp, sugar, sesame seed oil, and ground black pepper. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the mixture and stir until thoroughly mixed. You want to have about three and a half cups of filling.

3. Spread about 2 ft of clear plastic wrap on a clean, dry countertop. Layout 6 Gyoza wrappers at one end of the plastic wrap. Place about 1 Tbsp. of the filling at the center of each Gyoza wrapper. Moisten the tip of a pastry brush with water and go around the edges of each Gyroza wrapper. Fold the Gyoza wrapper over and pinch at the center. Pinch the two sides together to seal the pot-sticker well. Stand the pot-sticker up and push down slightly to form a flat bottom.

Arrange the 6 filled pot-stickers neatly at the other end of the plastic wrap. Repeat to assemble the next 6 pot-stickers. Continue until all the wrappers are used up.

4. Heat 3 Tbsp. of corn oil in a large flat non-stick frying pan at MEDIUM HIGH until hot. Carefully add 25-30 pot-stickers to the pan (depending on the size of the pan), arranging them in three neat columns. Push the pot-stickers close together, with the sides touching. Fry uncovered for 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and cover the pan with its lid. Cook covered for 7-8 minutes, or until done. The pot-stickers are done when the water in the pan has evaporated, oil reappears in the pan, and the bottom of the pot-stickers have turned golden crisp. Use a long flat wooden spatula to carefully scrape up the pot-stickers, 1/2 column at a time, and invert them onto a plate. (With this dish, the bottom side is the “nice” side.)  The sauce is quite strong. Go easy with the dipping.

 好吃!! (Hǎochī!) Delicious!

Pinyin or Bo Po Mo Fo?

I grew up learning how to read Chinese using the Zhuyin phonetic system.  This system consists of thirtysix consonant sounds and vowel sounds, each represented by a special symbol. The first 4 symbols are pronounced Bo, Po, Mo, and Fo. Therefore, the Zhuyin system is often referred to as the Bo Po Mo Fo system. It is still used by the schools in Taiwan.

No, we did not have a tune like the “ABCDEFG” song to help us learn the “alphabet”. The Bo Po Mo Fo sounds and symbols were simply crammed into us. The phonetic symbols and tone marks were placed alongside the Chinese characters in our textbooks so we would be able to sound out those even more complicated word symbols. It has been standard in Taiwan to print children’s story books and magazines with the Bo Po Mo Fo notation accompanying the Chinese characters.

I believe some Chinese instructors in the USA, who came from Taiwan, are using the Zhuyin phonetic system in their classes for the simple fact that the textbooks they have on hand employ the Bo Po Mo Fo notations.

Whereas the Zhuyin system involves special symbols, pinyin is made up entirely of letters from the English alphabet plus the tone marks. It’s a no-brainer that it will be a more intuitive phonetic system for the English-speaking students. It is also a natural for entering Chinese text using  the QWERTY keyboard – There is no need to remember which keys represent which special symbol, or to paste the Bo Po Mo Fo symbols on the keys as some of my friends do.

My vote goes to pinyin.

What’s the best way to learn Chinese?

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. For one thing, the Chinese characters bear no resemblance to written English. Secondly, whereas you might be able to correctly guess a few Spanish or German words even if you don’t speak the language, it is nearly impossible to do that with Chinese. (Benny Lewis disagrees with this point.) And yet, many Westerners have climbed the steep slope and successfully mastered Chinese as a second language.

To the beginner, this is often the first question that comes to mind: What’s the best way to learn Chinese? Of course. the answer is different for different people in different situations. Ideally, you are in an environment in which you interact with Chinese-speaking folks during all of your waking hours. In addition, you have a couple dedicated teachers to guide you in speaking, reading and writing Chinese. That would be unrealistic for most people. So, let’s look for the next best solution. In financial terms, what’s the least expensive way to learn the language in a short time?

Following are a few suggestions. Please feel free to add a comment based on your own experience in learning Chinese.

1. Learn the “pinyin” phonetic aid. This is equivalent to learning your “ABC” for English. Please see the article on the page titled “Pinyin Guide”.

2. Add a few words at a time to your Chinese vocabulary. There are now apps for mobile devices that help you learn a few Chinese words any time wherever you are.

3. Use a step-by-step Chinese language instruction book or electronic learning program as your main “textbook”. Also get a couple helpful supplemental books and DVDs. With “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”, I made it a point to include the Chinese characters, the pinyin as well as the English translation.

4. Get free instructions on the Internet. However, watch out for malicious sites.

5. If possible, attend a Chinese instruction class, such as those offered at community colleges.

6. Take every opportunity you have to talk or communicate with a Chinese-speaking person. Also, you will likely pick up new words and expressions by watching Chinese videos and movies.

7. Read about other people’s journey on the road to mastering Chinese as a foreign language. Here is an example.

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