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Chinese Culture note: today is ‘Xiao Nian’ (little new year) !


about Chinese new year celebration

Image source:http://photo.xinzhou.org/2009/0118/picture_1161_5.html   Image source:http://tieba.baidu.com/p/1376530070

As I said yesterday, today all the Chinese new year celebrations are starting!!

In Chinese, today is called ‘Xiao Nian’, which literally means ‘little new year’. It should probably be called ‘pre-new year’ instead. Xiao Nian normally happens 7 days before Chinese new year day; however, different regions, and even different social classes in the past celebrated Xiao Nian on different days (for example, the emperors and royals would have it a day earlier than ordinary people). In northeast China, it is always on 23rd Dec in Chinese calendar. And our celebration may be a bit different to the other regions.

From this day onwards, traditionally people started preparing goods for the new year celebration — although, nowadays, people normally start preparations much earlier. The preparation commonly includes stocking food, buying new clothes for new year, and home decoration, for example, hanging the couplets on both side of the door, sticking some festival paper cut figures on the door and windows, hanging the red lanterns in and outside the house.

However, the main point of the celebration on this day is still about food. :)) — Yes, to have enough food and wealthy life for the coming new year.

It is said that in Xia dynasty times (over 4000 years ago), there was a fairy, called ‘Zao wang ye’, who was is in charge of the ‘cooker’ (at least, that is what we say) of every household — more like ‘to make sure people have enough food to eat. And on this day, ‘Zao wang ye’ goes to the ‘above’, and reports to the Jade emperor how people behave, therefore what kind of fortune they should have for the new year.

So in northeast China, as tradition, on this day, people would prepare a kind of sweet snack for Zao wang ye. The sweet is made with maltose and sesame seeds. When it is cold, it is crispy, when it is ‘warm’, it gets hard and sticky. Some say that giving this kind of sweet to ‘Zao wang ye’ means that then ‘Zao wang ye’ can say sweet things about you in front the Jade Emperor, others say that it is for making ‘Zao wang ye’s’ mouth sticky so that he cannot talk bad things about you, anyway, it is just to make sure that you can have a nice new year. Ha… Yet another piece of evidence of how important food is in Chinese culture!

Of course nowadays nobody really believes this kind of story anymore, but the tradition is still kept. If you are in China today, especially in northeast China, this sweet ‘Zao tang’ is sold everywhere. I really love to eat it, my mom always buys some. And I loved to eat it when my mom just brought it in, it still carries chilliness from outside the cold weather, it is crispy, has very interesting texture when chewing, and not too sweet.

Making it at home is a very difficult and long process, at least I don’t think I would have the patience to do it. (Here in England I also don’t have the ingredients). One of the traditional methods is to soak the ‘yellow grains’ for a few days, (which is a kind of very ‘sticky grain’), then grind them into powder. At the same time, steam some ‘yellow grains’, then mix the two things together, allow it to set for some time. It then becomes ‘sweetish’ at this point. Then cook it in the sauce pan into a kind of paste. When the paste is cooling down, shape it into ‘strips’, and leave it in the fridge overnight (or just outside since northeast is very cold in winter anyway), it will become more solid, and crispy when eating.

Anyway, here we cannot have ‘zao tang’, but cook something good for ‘Zao wang ye’ tonight, for having a good year ahead!! :))

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