Today is the Qingming Festival (清明節) when Chinese families all over the world visit ancestral tombs to pay respect by cleaning them. Despite being one of the three major holidays celebrated by the Chinese, very few in the West understand its significance. It is such a vital holiday that controversial for hire tomb sweeping services are now available for migrant workers who are unable to return to their ancestral homes during this festival.
A week ago Friday the night after yuanxiao (元宵), which is on the fifteenth day or the last day of the formal Chinese lunar New Year celebration, I’d invited a few of my blogger friends over for dinner. For months, if not years, I’d been promising them I would cook one of my Chinese feasts, but had not fulfilled this pledge. This last eighteen months I’ve been so pre-occupied with writing my cookbook that I had neglected them. So I made it up to them with a “Spring Awakening Dinner.”
Two weeks ago Warren and I left Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport bound for Xiamen (廈門), a major southern port city of Fujian (福建) province where my ancestors are from. The first thing I noticed onboard our Xiamen Airlines airplane was that the pre-flight announcement was in the Southern Min (閩南) dialect that I spoke with my grandparents. During my travels in China over the last decade I’ve never heard any local dialects used in such official announcements. So this was surprising to me since China’s central government pretty much dictates people’s life including the language used for official or business purposes. I knew then that I was about to witness a very different independent minded part of China. This spirit probably helps explain their unique culture and cooking customs as well.
Song Jiang (宋江), who is an outlaw during the Song dynasty (宋朝) around eleventh century, is also a heroic character in the classic Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳) written around the fourteenth century. In the novel he is exiled to Jiang Zhou (江州) after being convicted for a murder. Along with two bailiffs they board a hired river ferry which, unbeknownst to them, is operated by a pirate. Once they reach the middle of the river the pirate demands that they turn over their possessions and choose “shaved noodles” (板刀麵) or “wonton” (餛飩) for their last meal. Upon further clarification the pirate explains they can either be killed under his machete like dough being shaved into noodles or they can kill themselves by jumping into the river like wonton in a soup. Such is the poetic macabre image of wonton in one of the most beloved literary works of ancient China.
Beets were introduced into China from Babylonia around the ninth century. However unlike other food items of New World origin such as potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts and chilies, which Portuguese traders brought to China in the seventeenth century, beets have never become a major Chinese cooking ingredient. Given this long history of existence in China why are they not more popular?
To someone growing up in Asia in the 1960’s “boiled peanuts and a movie” is what “popcorn and a movie” is to the American moviegoers. As a child going to the cinemas in Singapore, I would always encounter boiled peanuts peddlers pushing large steaming kettles, mounted on tricycles, bursting with peanuts selling their fare. My friends and I would purchase packages of boiled peanuts in newspaper cones and bring them into the theatre. We would crack the peanuts noiselessly, as the moist soft shells split easily, and discard them on the floor. At the end of the show the floor would be full of peanut shells and I used to enjoy stomping on the shells making crunching noise as we walked out. But this reminiscing also brought out my feeling of disgust for how filthy that habit was. I’m glad that this practice doesn’t exist anymore.