World of Mouth: Have you eaten yet?

The column that brings you festivals from around the world; this week, why the Chinese eat fish, oranges and pomelo to celebrate their new year?

Pineapple Tarts 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pineapple Tarts 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain."Chi fan le mei you?" "Have you eaten yet?" This coming week, these words are likely to be heard in many Chinese households around the world. That’s because February 3, is the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the most important and well-known of traditional Chinese holidays. The festivities go on for 15 days and Chinese people all over the world take part in the celebrations by cleaning out and decorating their houses, exchanging gifts, and most importantly, sharing delicious meals with friends and family.
Food is a key component of the Chinese New Year traditions. However, dishes are chosen not just for flavor and sustenance, but also for what they symbolize. Due to the structure of the Chinese language, it is full of homonyms that often make for interesting puns. In Chinese culture, these linguistic similarities are important, especially when choosing symbolic holiday dishes. For example, in many regions, fish is eaten on New Year's since the Chinese words for “fish” and “surpluses” sound similar. Thus it is thought that eating fish symbolizes abundance in the coming year.
Another popular dish is a glutinous rice cake called Nian Gao, which can mean either “sticky cake” or “prosperous year.” Shrimp dishes are also common since the word for shrimp also means “to laugh or smile." Oranges and tangerines are eaten because the words for “orange” and “gold” are similar, as are the words for “tangerine” and “luck.” Another popular food is the pomelo, a large citrus fruit which in Cantonese, sounds like both “prosperity” and “status.”
Culinary symbolism is not only tied to language however. In Northern China, it is customary to make jiaozi, dumplings that can be filled with ingredients such as pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, cabbage, ginger and scallions. The dumplings are often formed into a crescent shape which resembles the golden ingots used for money during the Ming dynasty (thus serving as a symbol for prosperity in the coming year). Another dish called chang sou mien (longevity noodles) is common because long noodles symbolize longevity.
On the first day of the New Year, many families eat a vegetarian dish called “Jai” or “Buddha’s Delight.” The dish contains a dizzying number of ingredients, many of which are symbols of the family’s hopes for the coming year. Among other things, the dish contains lotus seeds (an abundance of male offspring), black seaweed (abundance and wealth), peanuts (longevity), gingko nuts (wealth), and bamboo shoots (a term meaning “Everything happens in the best of worlds”).
Not surprisingly, sweets also play an important role in the Chinese New Year. Not only are they yummy, but they are also believed to sweeten the coming year. There are many different kinds but some of the most popular are: gok jai, sweet little dumplings filled with peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds; eight treasure rice pudding, a traditional pudding topped with eight different kinds of fruits and nuts; and pineapple tarts, buttery crumbly bite-sized pastries topped with sticky dollops of pineapple jam.
Celebrate along with the Chinese and sweeten up your day with this recipe for pineapple tarts from Bee Yinn Low of the food blog Rasamalaysia.
Pineapple Tarts
(makes 24 tarts)
For the pastry
2 1/2 cups (350g) all-purpose flour
2 sticks butter/8 oz./1 cup/225 grams butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar/icing sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch (corn flour)
1 egg yolk (lightly beaten for egg wash)
For the pineapple filling
2 cans (20 oz can) sliced pineapples
10 tablespoons sugar (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon cornstarch or corn flour (mixed with 1 teaspoon water)
For the pineapple filling:
-Drain the pineapple slices and then squeeze out the extra water/juice with your hands. Blend the canned pineapples until they are mushy, about 10 seconds.
-Cook the pineapple and sugar over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated, and the filling is golden. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid burning. Taste, and add more sugar if needed. Stir in the cornstarch (or corn flour) to thicken the filling. Let it cool in the fridge.
For the pastry:
-Sift the flour, cornstarch, salt and sugar into a medium bowl.
-Knead the butter, egg yolks and flour together to form the dough.
-Divide the dough and pineapple filling each into 24 equal rounds. Flatten the pastry dough with the palms and put the pineapple filling in the middle and use the dough to cover the filling. Use your palms to round it up and then shape it into a roll about 1.5 inch long. Use a fork to make criss-cross patterns on the tart and then brush it with the egg wash.
-Preheat the oven for 350F and bake for 20-25 minutes or until light brown.
Read more of Johanna's thoughts on food at: