Welcome to the Year of the Pig!
On February 5th, 2019, we celebrated the Chinese New Year, also known as the year of the pig! This is going to be a colorful and dare I say, delicious episode!
Nearly 200 episodes of the Feisworld Podcast have been released, and we’ve spent a good amount of time talking about China, where I grew up. But we’ve rarely covered topics related to traditions, myths, taboos, superstitions. Instead of going right back to the Docuseries minis and regular interview episodes, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for us to have a quick chat about the Chinese New Year.
Happy New Year! 新年快乐！
The Chinese New Year celebration is not quite over for people living in China (it’s a 7-day celebration). If you live elsewhere in the world, you can choose to experience Chinese culture at your pace. First by making some new Chinese friends, and more importantly, asking them to take you to a Chinatown near you. If not, please do pay a visit by yourself, or with your friends and loved ones. It’s quite an experience.
You may even get to watch the Lion Dance or a Kung Fu demonstration. The good news is that there are Chinatowns everywhere in the world! Even in small cities in the US., you are likely to find a Chinese community. I once lived in Scottsdale, Arizona for 7 months. My mom came to visit me for a while, and we ended up finding a thriving Chinese community there.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, is the grandest festival in China, with a 7-day long holiday. In certain parts of China, people could celebrate the new year for up to two weeks. It’s also the busiest travel season ANYWHERE in China. Imagine for a second, the majority of the 1.3 billion people are going to be on road - by car, train or air. For Chinese people, Chinese New Year is just like Thanksgiving and Christmas, an opportunity to visit their families. It can be the only opportunity for people who live and work away from their families.
Some quick facts you can brag to your friends
The Pig is the twelfth of all zodiac animals. If found some interesting information in English on https://chinesenewyear.net/
“According to one myth, the Jade Emperor said the order would be decided by the order in which they arrived to his party. Pig was late because he overslept. Another story says that a wolf destroyed his house. He had to rebuild his home before he could set off. When he arrived, he was the last one and could only take twelfth place.
The Pig is also associated with the Earthly Branch (地支—dì zhī) hài (亥), and the hours 9–11 in the night. In terms of yin and yang (阴阳—yīn yáng), the Pig is yin. In Chinese culture, pigs are the symbol of wealth.
Their chubby faces and big ears are signs of fortune as well.
Pigs have a beautiful personality and are blessed with good fortune in life.
Recent years of the Pig are: 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019
As for me, my element, being born in 1983 is water.
“These Pigs are responsible and serious. They are full of ideas but are easily influenced by others. In relationships, this is a good thing. They listen and communicate well with their friends and family. They have good fortune and will retire with ample savings.”
I couldn’t help taking a look at my late father’s Zodiac - 1947, which make element the Fire. “These Pigs are very dependent on others. They are more suitable for jobs that require cooperation and teamwork. If they focus on a specific skill, they can build a solid foundation for their career. They’re good with money too, and have nothing to worry about in that aspect. They are pretty popular and get along well with everyone. However, romantic relationships are rockier.”
Chinese New Year back in the day vs. today
Between the age of 6-10, I remember the Chinese New Year being the most joyful time of the year (we are talking about the late 80s and early 90s). My entire family living in Beijing would come together.
I had three cousins at the time, one a few years older, and the other two just around my age. They were all boys. Fun times and disastrous times, depending on the year.
Recipe for Fei’s Favorite Dumplings
1 pound of ground pork
1 pound of shrimps (give them a rough chop into small chunks so they fit better inside a wrap)
2-3 cups of chive (alternative, you can use other veggies as well such as dill). I’m a big veggie fan, you can use less if desired. You can decide after you mix all the ingredients together and see if you need more greens
1 tablespoon of garlic (freshly chopped, or use a paste or powder)
1 tablespoon of ginger (freshly chopped, or use a paste or powder)
Salt and pepper to taste
About 50 wrappers
To make the dumpling wraps easier to close, you can prepare a small bowl of water and leave it on the side. Then you dab the water on the edges of the wraps after you put the filling in to soften it. This is because store-bought wrappers are dryer and stiffer compared to freshly made wrappers. Here’s an article written by Epicurious called “The only 3 folding techniques you will need to make dumplings at home”
Use some dry flours on the plate or surface where you keep the already-made dumplings. They tend to stick to each other a lot less this way
Boiling or Frying?
This isn’t a difficult question. Of course you can do both! My suggestion is to boil them first, and then you can fry the leftover the second day. Why? Fresh dumplings make by hands taste really good when boiled. (Honestly, even the store-bought frozen dumplings taste pretty good too when boiled).
Frying dumplings isn’t always a trivial thing. Because the way dumplings are shaped, it’s not easy to cook them evenly if you fry them. Some parts may burn, and the other undercooked. If you want to fry them, try this method:
1-2 tablespoon of oil in the pan, wait for it to get hot
Drop in the freshly made dumplings (flat side down) and turn the heat down to medium, cover, wait for 3-4 mins and enjoy the sizzling sound. You don’t have to flip the dumplings so it creates that crispy flat side. If they flip over, don’t freak out, they taste awesome either way.
Next key step - prepare a quarter cup water and pour into the pan. Cover again for another 5-6 mins.
To ensure dumplings are fully cooked (especially if you are doing this for the first time), simply take one dumpling out, cut it open and examine the filling. Shrimps cook quickly, and pork has to be fully cooked. Ground pork tends to cook more quickly and evenly.
Generally speaking, regular sized fresh dumplings take about 10 mins to cook. If you’ve make some extra large dumplings, you’ll need to add 1-2 mins to the overall cooking time. Frozen dumplings also tend to cook longer.
Making fresh dumplings was a must. Similar to Jewish family gatherings and making stuffed cabbage together, we made dumplings. Because there were always so many family members involved, we had several fillings for the dumplings and they were made with a team spirit. My favorite filling has always been with shrimp, chive, pork (recipe below)
You can control the portions of the ingredients, adding 1-2 eggs, season with salt and pepper. Personally, I’ve always loved more veggies and seafood than meat. Pork makes it especially delicious and you don’t even need too much of it. As for the dumpling wrappers, they are available at most of your local grocery stores, and not just at Chinese groceries. In fact, I found them at Target!
You wouldn’t imagine what we kids drank every year during Chinese New Year. Coca Cola and Sprite. Yes! As crazy as it sounds, we inhaled them down our throats and were really proud of it. They were great companions for dumplings and part of our new year memories. I invented a popular mixed drink, which was to combine coke and sprite together. My cousins loved it and the drink became a new holiday tradition.
As for adults, they drank beers made in China, and some “bai-jiu”, white liquor.
Today, the Chinese New Year celebration has changed quite a bit for people living in cities. Because of traffic and endless entertainment offered all around them, people tend to gather less frequently as large families, or they’d change the dates around so it’s more manageable for everyone’s schedule.
As a result of technology, the use of the super app in China called WeChat, which dominates more than 90% of all cell phone owners in China, allows people to talk, text, and video-chat with one another on a regular basis. Before we had cell phones back in the 90s, the only time for everyone to gather was on the New Year’s Eve, which felt a lot more special.
People’s enthusiasm for the new year is also reflected in the China's most-watched annual television show on Chinese Lunar New Year's eve. The show remains to be a live show, except that you can now stream it and watch it later anytime you want. Back in the day, it was our only opportunity to watch the show and witness all the super stars gather in one place to perform. From standup comedy to circus acts, singing, talent shows, animals performing on stage and everything in between. In fact, in 1993, my dad got two tickets to see the show live. I saw Jackie Chan eating instant noodles before he went on stage, and my dad pushed me for an autograph but I was too shy to do it.
Instant noodles? Not just Jackie Chan, but all the famous mainland and Hong Kong performers that night were eating less than average food. Rehearsals for these shows often run for months and requires serious commitment from everyone involved.
With that said, 2019’s Chinese New Year Show had more viewers than before according to Xin Hua Net “This year, more than 621.4 million people in China and another 24.8 million overseas watched the show on television, while a surging number of viewers -- 527 million -- watched it on new media platforms: apps, websites, video-streaming sites and social media”
Hey, I hope you find this episode different and interesting! I’m not a Chinese historian or guru, but I’d love to tell more people about the Chinese culture and help you experience more good food. In fact, I’ll be sure to follow with an episode on the Chinese dim sum (which is the equivalent of small dishes food, like tapas) in an upcoming episode.
If there are aspects of the Chinese culture that interests you in particular, please drop me a comment below.