Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chinese New Year & Dumplings

The Holiday: Chinese New Year, Beijing, China
My good friend Bowei moved back to his hometown just in time for the New Year

I first met my dear friend Bowei (more appropriately, saw him) on my very first day of college at LSU. I was sitting in geography and he walked in wearing an ironic made in the ‘80s t-shirt and black-framed glasses.  He looked so cool.  I thought to myself, “Man, I have to be friends with this guy!”  Sadly, I was too intimidated to talk to him. 

But, on the second day of school, we were introduced by a mutual friend and spent the evening together eating store-bought brownies in my dorm. As they say, the rest is history.

Me and Bowei freshman year of college. 

Bowei is still one of my best friends and is my pop-culture touchstone.  He taught me about Skins (the superior British version, of course) and everything I know about online shopping. 

Yes, Bowei is an American boy.  Except, he’s not.

Bowei was born in Beijing and is quite proud of his heritage. He actually just moved back to China for an eight-month internship in Beijing. Bowei, a college senior, hasn’t lived in China since fifth grade and is now an American citizen; but he has stayed close to his roots, traveling to China several times and speaking Mandarin at home. 

Bowei on a family trip back to China, December 2010. 

Bowei is moving to his hometown just in time for Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on January 23. This will be Bowei’s first New Year in China since he moved.

He likened Chinese New Year to American Thanksgiving. He said his extended family meets at his grandparents’ house in Beijing. The women cook a delicious feast together and the children help.

Dumplings, he said, are the signature dish, and toys and money are customarily hidden in the dumplings for good luck.

After dinner, everyone sits down together to watch CCTV’s New Year’s Gala — similar to Dick Clark’s bash.  The show provides family entertainment from music performances to stand-up comedy.

"When I was growing up, the entire country was watching it on TV,” Bowei said.

After the special, at about 9 or 10 p.m., Bowei said he remembers the city lighting up under a colorful blanket of fireworks.

Bowei called Chinese New Year the country’s biggest holiday, and like Christmas in America, there is a season devoted to it.  He said in the four weeks leading up to the big day children start visiting family, friends and even their parents’ co-workers, from whom they receive envelopes of money.  Bowei explained that when you pay respect, you receive this gift.

During this time, he said a lot of adults receive oversized calendars for the New Year, often adorned with the year’s symbol (this year’s is the dragon) in “good luck colors” — gold and red.

He said everywhere you go — public squares and in front­ of businesses ­— before Chinese New Year there are dragon dancers. He also excitedly explained Temple Festivals that precede the holiday.

Bowei said Taoist and Buddhist temples are turned into fair grounds.  For me to visualize the event, Bowei asked me to recall state fairs I visited as a kid.  He joyfully described the prizes, crowds, food and art he had not experienced since childhood and was looking forward to seeing again.

He said people return to the temples after the New Year to burn the first incense of the season, some temples even sell this coveted first position to businesses or individuals. According to Bowei, burning the first incense brings good fortune.

Lastly, Bowei and I discussed the ancient tradition of decorating doors with Chinese couplets, or handwritten poems in paired lines “asking for a good year, good health [and] good fortunes."

Bowei said the ritual dates back to when people lived in hutongs, or courtyard residences.  The word hutong first originated in the 13th or 14th century and these homes recently decreased in popularity, in mid-20th century. Bowei said people would decorate their hutongs with couplets.  Today, the couplets are not limited to hutongs.  

Bowei warned that his northern customs may vary from other regions in China, but the sentiment of being with your family and blending of the old and new is the same throughout the country.

"The most important thing is to be united with your family," he said. 

And he will. In addition to his extended family, Bowei’s mother and father will be joining him in China for the New Year. They will all be together at home for the first time in more than 10 years.

The Recipe: Bowei’s Dumplings
While Bowei’s mom and aunts make the dough from scratch, Bowei provided us with a shortcut.

Bowei with a tray of his famous dumplings at his 2011 Chinese New Year party.
- Small amount chopped ginger
- 1 pound ground pork
- 4-6 grams of salt per pound of pork
- Splash of white wine
- 1 tbs soy sauce (Bowei says not the dark soy sauce)
- 2 tbs of water
- 1-2 bunch green onions (scallions)
- 2 tbs of sesame oil
- Dumpling Wrappers (the shortcut)

Dumplings (By Bowei):
The Filling ...
Mix all of the above ingredients for a good 5 minutes until the meat and onions are evenly mixed. (Mix the meat and other ingredients for a little while before adding the green onions.)
Now, scoop out small, one-inch sized balls of filling and put them in the dumpling wrappers.
After your done wrapping the dumplings ...
Boil a pot of water.
Once the water comes to a boil, you can drop the dumplings into the pot. (A good way to know for sure the dumplings are cooked is to let the water come to a boil 2-3 times, adding cold water in between each boil.)

“The recipe is very flexible ... If you don't like onions, [you] can add a little less.”

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