10 February 2017

Full moon, lanterns and romance

Yuanxiao-sweet sticky balls is the dish of the Lantern Festival while caidengmi-guessing lantern riddles is the game of the day.
Yuanxiao-sweet sticky balls is the dish of the Lantern Festival while caidengmi-guessing lantern riddles is the game of the day.

To understand China, sit down to eat. Food is the indestructible bond that holds the whole social fabric together and it is also one of the last strong visages of community and culture

The 15 days of the Spring Festival celebrations end with the first full moon of the year. There will be plenty of fireworks, crackers and a final burst of festive feasting.

Dish of the day will be the little round glutinous rice balls called yuanxiao, named after the festival itself.

Yuanxiao Festival has been around since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220) and is part of a Taoist tradition of three important dates - shangyuan (yuanxiao), zhongyuan and xiayuan - spaced out throughout the year.

It was initially a tribute to the ancient god of light, but became incorporated into the lunar new year celebrations. Its actual historical origins are now lost in the mists of time. These days, it is more recognized as the Lantern Festival, or Sweethearts' Day.

Lanterns and romance may seem remotely connected but in the old feudal days unmarried girls never stepped out of the inner courtyards of their homes. Their one chance was during the 15th day of the new year, when colorful lanterns were strung up for public display and there were dragon and lion dances in the streets.

This was when the girls, properly chaperoned, were allowed out. Of course, where the girls were, the young men would be swarming as well, their eyes on the lookout for the prettiest ladies.

Once they had spotted their target and investigated which family she was from, the young men would go home and tell their parents about their chosen ones. The happy parents would then send for matchmakers and commission them to approach the girl's family with a marriage proposal.

And so, this day gradually evolved into a sort of Chinese Valentine's day.

The lanterns were not just decorative. They had riddles written on the sides or hanging from tassels. The brightest young men would show off by trying to solve the riddles quickly and loudly, thus attracting the attention of the most charming ladies. This game was called caidengmi, "guessing lantern riddles".

My grandmother used to tell us stories of how her Straits Chinese cousins in Penang, Malaysia, had a similar tradition. The girls, closely watched by strict nannies or maiden aunts, would stroll by the esplanade admiring the full moon.

They would throw mandarin oranges into the sea, making a wish for an eligible husband. Like their peers in history, the young men would be carefully observing from a distance. After all, it was a once-a-year parade of the fairest in the land.

These days, young men and women no longer need the delicate maneuvers of secret admiration, furtive selection and the service of matchmakers. They are more likely to boldly go forward on their own, holding hands beneath the light of the moon, probably after meeting online.

Thankfully, the fireworks, elaborate lanterns and glutinous rice balls have all survived the test of time, just like the dragon and lion dances, especially in the southern parts of China.

In Southwestern China, certain ethnic communities in the Sichuan-Yunnan plateau mark the occasion not with lanterns but with more primitive torches, and dancing and singing around the campfire. They, too, take the opportunity to pair up at these gatherings, thus reinforcing its reputation as a lovers' festival.

But, in many overseas Chinese communities, the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations is still marked with elaborate lantern exhibitions. Huge lanterns are crafted and often mechanized so the inner shades turn like a carousel.

These elaborate contraptions have the charming name of "lanterns of galloping horses", zoumadeng, because of their rapid spinning generated by the heat of the candles inside.

Other lanterns, delicately painted with calligraphy, peonies and chrysanthemums, are inspired by the regal lights of the imperial palaces.

Many world records have been broken with sheer size and ingenuity.

This is also the last day for temple fairs, where artisans and artists show off their skills and products. For a fortnight, they have sold traditional snacks and drinks, showed off their acrobatic and singing skills and sold balloons, toys and sweets to indulgent parents.

Once the holidays end, their audiences will go back to work.

But wherever you are, in China or abroad, there is something you must do on this day - eat yuanxiao.

These sweet sticky balls are made with glutinous rice flour and normally would be filled with peanuts, red bean paste, black sesame paste or just plain crushed rock sugar.

They represent the completeness of life, the sweetness of living.

In the frugal north, the filled rice balls are cooked in just water, but southerners prefer their yuanxiao boiled and served in flavored sweet soups, spiced with ginger maybe, or a hint of cinnamon.

Traditions do evolve, with distance

Growing up in Singapore, handling a bowl of hot soup on a warm humid night was not a favored option. For that reason, my grandmother often served yuanxiao on its own, rolled in crushed peanuts or sweetened coconut flakes, taking on the tropical flavors of our equatorial home. Here is her recipe for you to try.

Yuanxiao Sweet glutinous rice balls

500g glutinous rice flour

1 cup warm water

1 cup salted peanuts, chopped

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut, sweetened

Place glutinous rice flour in a mixing bowl and slowly add water till it forms a pliable dough. It should hold together and not break apart. If you like, you can divide the dough into portions and tint with food coloring. Mix together crushed peanuts and brown sugar.

Take a piece of dough and form into a circle, adding a spoonful of peanut mixture in the center. Close the circle and roll into a ball, making sure the filling is tightly enclosed.

Drop into boiling water to cook. When the little balls float, they are ready.

Roll the balls in the remaining peanut-sugar mixture, or roll in the desiccated coconut. Serve with Chinese tea. If you prefer the sweet soup version, prepare the syrup in a separate pot.

Fill a saucepan with water and add a piece of peeled ginger, lightly crushed. Add enough rock sugar to sweeten to your taste. Keep the sweet soup simmering. Once the yuanxiao are cooked, place a few into a bowl and ladle over the sweet soup. Serve immediately.