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!

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