2018 Is the Year of the Dog
What does that mean?
- The dog is the 11th of all the zodiac animals
- Chinese astrologer Laura Lau says this year will feel better than last year—thank goodness!
- This year’s earthly element is earthy, which Laura Lau says will make it a gentler dog than other dog years
- The qualities most associated the dog in Chinese astrology are: loyalty, honesty, intelligence, and a strong sense of right and wrong. (Let’s hope this is a good omen for the year ahead—the rooster, by contrast, tends to be demanding and a tad persnickety.)
- In China Wàng Cái (旺财) is a popular dog name, meaning “prosperous wealth”. The name comes from dogs’ barking sounds (旺旺—wàng wàng).
Since Friday marked the Chinese New Year and ushered in the Year of the Dog, I decided to take a trip to Chinatown here in Boston for this week’s pastry adventure.
I had plenty of Chinese and Taiwanese classmates when I was in graduate school, so I’ve been aware of Chinese New Year since arriving in Boston, but I’d never learned too much about. In preparation for my weekend adventure, I did a little research, and what I learned was fascinating.
World’s Largest Annual Human Migration
Much like Thanksgiving in the United States, Chinese New Year is a holiday very focused on family, so many people return home to celebrate with extended family. Chinese New Year is not only one of the most celebrated festival’s in the world, it also brings the largest mass human migration each year. This year 385 million people are expected to make an exodus out of the major cities to visit family in rural areas—imagine the entire US population, plus another 60 million, all on vacation, all trying to get there at once! The practice has even garnered its own name—chunyun (春运) or “spring migration”.
This sounds like my personal travel nightmare, but what’s a holiday without a little travel madness, I suppose?
Incidentally, the most firecrackers in the world are also set off during Chinese New Year.
New Year Traditions
This yearly festival honors both Chinese deities and a family’s ancestors, with the specific traditions varying greatly from one region to another. It seems, however, that the most unifying tradition is the annual reunion dinner the evening before New Year’s Day.
One tradition I found particularly thoughtful is that any family members who aren’t able to return home still have a symbolic spot at the table—an empty place is set with a spare set of utensils to represent these missing beloveds.
Another tradition is that people will often thoroughly clean their homes in preparation for the holiday. This is a symbolic way to “sweep away any bad fortune from the preceding year to make space for good luck in the year ahead.” Nothing beats a fresh start!
In addition, doors and windows are often decorated in red, and friends may exchange small gifts.
What to Eat During Chinese New Year
The foods eaten during the reunion meal are designed to bring blessings in the year ahead. The meal often includes eight dishes, as this number is associated with good fortune. One fun thing about the food is that both the look of the food and the names of the dish carry symbolic meaning. For example, the meal often includes a large helping of fish, but it isn’t all eaten and the leftovers are stored every night—in part because the phrase “may there be surpluses every year" (年年有餘) sounds the same as "let there be fish every year.”
Dumplings are also another very common, highly significant food:
In Chinese, dumplings (饺子—jiǎo zi) sounds like 交子(jiāo zi). 交 (Jiāo) means “exchange” and 子(zi) is the midnight hours. Put together, jiāo zi is the exchange between the old and new year. All dumplings should be wrapped at this time. By eating dumplings, you are sending away the old and welcoming the new.
I could write multiple posts just devoted to Chinese New Year food traditions, but that’s not why we’re here. So, if you’re curious and want to learn more, I’d recommend checking out this cool website: Chinese New Year 2018.
New Year Pastries!
As I told you at the outset, I decided to take a trip to Boston’s Chinatown over the weekend to take in the new year festivities. I pass through Chinatown all the time on my way to the train/bus station, but it’s rare that I have the time to stop for a treat or take in the atmosphere, so this was a bit of a treat.
Red and gold lanterns had been hung from every light pole throughout Chinatown, so the feeling was unmistakably festive. The busy neighborhood seemed to be more bustling than usual as people moved from restaurants to bakeries to stands selling New Year decorations.
I had done my homework ahead of time to find out what kinds of pastries are associated with the New Year celebrations. I absolutely had my heart set on finding fa gao (发糕)—the of this treat name implies a wish for success, to gain wealth or fortune in the year ahead.
Fa gao is made from a soaked rice paste that is then allowed to ferment, which is the make-or-break step in the process. The fermentation must go just right to get the proper airiness and raised finish typical of this treat. After fermentation, the dough is steamed in a covered pan. The final product resembles a cupcake, but with a characteristic split into four quadrants. The fluffier the cake and the higher these splits, the better luck they’ll bring.
It took a big of searching, but I was able to find fa gao at Hing Shing Pastry, a lively bakery in the shadow of the Chinatown arch. The shop was packed with both locals and tourists stocking up on Chinese treats, with three older women behind the counter doling out the baked goods. While I waited my turn, I watched with fascination as four men in the kitchen toiled away, deftly preparing sesame buns for frying—it took no more than 15-20 seconds to create each one!
The fa gao itself was delightful. It had a very mild, sweet flavor. The dough tasted like it didn’t have any salt in it, but I suspect the fermenting of the rice paste before cooking gives it a very slightly tart flavor. My favorite thing about this happy little treat was the texture. In the finished product, the cake looks like a typical American cake dough, but it had a different texture. There was a very pleasant spring to it, more reminiscent of an angel food cake.
Because the February weather was so chilly, I’d sought refuge in the nearby Gracenote coffee shop to sample my treats, and the bitter coffee was a nice complement to this simple treat.
And I Couldn't Resist the Mooncakes
In addition to the fa gao, I also got a mooncake. According to my research, these pastries are more typically associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were so beautiful I couldn’t resist getting one.
Mooncakes are packed with flavor—mine was filled with a brown lotus seed paste. It had a very nutty, earthy flavor that reminded me a bit of peanut butter (though with the consistency of a very, very thick jelly). The pastry itself is a very starchy, mild pastry that seems to mostly be a casing for the flavor-packed center. Apparently, some mooncakes include a full egg yolk in the middle, which sounds decadent and delicious (note to self—look for this next time).
The characteristic design on the top of the cakes is made by using a mold that shapes a balled cake into the flower-like final product. The cakes are then brushed with egg yolk and cooked to glistening, golden perfection.
There are plenty more treats where these came from, so if you’re looking to widen your pastry horizons and try some new, unfamiliar flavors look for a Chinese bakery and explore!