Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.
Xīnnián hǎo / Xīnnián kuàilè - New Year Goodness / New Year Happiness
The Year of the Rabbit!
Many, many years ago, as a very young housewife and mother, I attended a Chinese cookery school in Cape Town. We loved going to eat at Chinese restaurants – one in particular served crispy bow-ties my new husband loved. I was, therefore, prompted to attend Chinese cooking school to learn how to make these. A year and two-diplomas later, I left with one major extra addition I had not previously known about. This was a food processor called a Robot Coupe. It was imported from France and totally captured my fancy. Nowadays, almost everyone has one of these in one brand name or another.
Previously, everyone sliced, chopped and beat by hand – whether in cooking classes at school or cooking school itself. It was about this time that my mother-in-law won a baking competition. The prizes were new appliances including a beautiful Kenwood mixer. Oh, the joy of it! But there was no sign of a food processor until I went to learn about Chinese cooking, which changed my life!
Homemade Chinese food is fabulous, quick to prepare, and even quicker to cook with a plethora of flavours in every healthy bite – dishes made their way to the table for mid-week meals and dinner parties, and, of course, we learnt a little about the Chinese culture along the way. The Spring Festival, aka the Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year, is China’s most important festival. The Spring Festival marks a new year on the lunar calendar and represents the desire for a new life. A week of public holidays is given over to this important family celebration.
Chinese New Year festivities are determined by the lunar calendar and can be traced back at least 3,500 years to the Shang Dynasty. The holiday falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice on December 21. Each year, the New Year in China falls on a different date that does not correspond with the Gregorian calendar (the calendar we follow). As these dates usually fall at the beginning of spring (the first of the 24 terms in coordination with the changes of Nature), it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
The date of the festival, the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, was fixed in the Han Dynasty-202 BC / 220 AD. Certain celebration activities became popular, such as burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound.
Food and the colour red are intertwined with myths and legends surrounding the history of the Chinese New Year. One story involves a mythical beast Nian (which means Year)! He ate livestock, crops and people on the eve of a new year. Way back in the mists of time, someone decreed that Nian did not like noise or the colour red, so red lanterns, red scrolls/banners (inscribed with messages of good health and fortune) and red firecrackers (originally burning bamboo) were put out there to frighten the beast, as well as food being left out on their doorsteps to appease his appetite for eating people!
Things have changed somewhat over the centuries. In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220/420 AD), people started to clean house and entertain late on the eve of the New Year along with worshiping their gods and ancestors. Through the next number of Dynasties (Tang, Song, Qing), prosperity of economies and cultures accelerated the customs being developed for this Festival. It was through this time that “dumplings” became a popular thing to eat as well as the dragon and lion dances being performed. The Spring Festival began to change from a religious one to an entertaining and social one.
Then in 1912, the government decided to abolish the Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar and instead adopted the Gregorian calendar, making January 1 the official start of the New Year. In 1949, the Chinese New Year was renamed the Spring Festival and listed as a nationwide public holiday – so the trends today are geared towards watching a lot on China’s television while sharing food and celebrating.
Lunar New Year is one of the most important celebrations of the year among East and Southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean communities.
“The New Year typically begins with the first new moon that occurs between the end of January and spans the first 15 days of the first month of the lunar calendar – until the full moon arrives.”
As to the reason this year is called “The Year of the Rabbit”; each year, the lunar calendar has a zodiac animal representing it. There are 12 zodiac animals included in the cycle of 12 stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.
In addition, there are five elements mapped into the traditional lunar calendar. These are earth, water, fire, wood and metal. The 12 zodiac animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Each lunar year is associated with an animal that corresponds to an element. However, in Vietnam, 2023 is the year of the cat. Vietnam and China share only 10 of the zodiac calendar’s 12 signs, so the Vietnamese honour the cat instead of the rabbit, and the buffalo instead of the ox.
On the food-side of the celebration, glutinous rice is commonly eaten in many forms as this food represents togetherness. Other foods symbolize prosperity, abundance and good luck. Fish is typically included in a New Year’s Eve meal for good luck. “In the Chinese language, the pronunciation of “fish” is the same as that for the word “surplus” or “abundance.”
1 Citrusy Fish Salad – Fish is one of the seven lucky foods to ring in the New Year. Whole fish is luckier than fillets; however, bones!!!!! So here is a delightful raw fish salad. A food processor can come into play here – use the large holes.
Shallow-fry these till golden, set aside on paper towel
500gskinless sashimi-grade fish, chopped into 1cm pieces (wishing you surplus wealth)
100gcarrot, peeled, grated
100gdaikon, peeled, grated
100ghot house cucumber, grated
1 Granny Smith apple, sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice
100gred, yellow, orange pepper, sliced
1 lime, peeled, thinly sliced (may you have luck, success and prosperity)
3 long green spring onions, finely sliced
1 grapefruit, peeled, segmented
1 dragon-fruit, peeled, cubed small
1/3cup salted peanuts, chopped
Prep all above and chill separately until time to plate.
Plum Sauce ingredients
200mlplum sauce (may your house be full of treasures)
50mllight soy sauce
¼ cup (60ml) sesame oil
Combine all ingredients and ¼ cup water in a bowl.
Toasted white sesame seeds
Chinese five spice powder (may fortune smile on you)
Freshly ground white pepper
Arrange ingredients in piles on a large serving platter.
Season fish with a pinch of salt, five-spice and white pepper.
Scatter with sesame seeds and coriander.
Drizzle sauce over each individual serving.
2 Pork Dumplings – You can buy these but homemade are so good. (A bit of practice is needed.)
1 pack Shanghai dumpling wrappers
1TBL oil, for pan-frying
½ cup water
1LB minced pork, or chicken
8oz napa cabbage, finely chopped
1TBL grated ginger
2TBL light soy sauce
¼ tsp white pepper powder
½ tsp salt
1 egg white
3 spring onions, finely chopped
3TBL heated oil
2TBL light soy sauce
1TBL black vinegar
Mix mince, cabbage, ginger, soy sauce, pepper, salt, egg white, onions, and oil.
Hold wrapper in flat hand and spoon in 1TBL filling.
Dip finger in water and wet edges.
Choose a side and pinch one corner together and start pleating towards it until all edges are sealed.
Add 1TBL oil to a frying pan, heat.
Add dumplings, seam-side up; don’t overcrowd the pan.
Cook until the bottoms are brown.
Add water, cover immediately; cook until almost all the water is evaporated.
Remove lid; continue cooking until all the water evaporates completely.
Serve with dipping sauce, chili oil and chopped spring onions.
3 New Year Almond Cookies
1 and 1/3 cups almond flour, lightly packed
1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
2 large eggs, divided
1tsp almond extract
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
½ tsp baking soda
Thinly sliced almonds
Beat almond flour, salt, and butter in electric mixer for 3 mins.
Add one egg and almond extract; mix on low speed.
Sift in flour, sugar, and baking soda, mix on low speed until just combined.
Flatten dough into a disc, wrap in plastic, chill 2 hours.
Preheat oven 325° F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Beat remaining egg in a small bowl.
Roll dough into balls about ¾-inch wide.
Place on cookie sheet about an inch apart.
Press down slightly to make a coin shape.
Press slivered almonds into centre of each disc.
Brush with beaten egg.
Bake 13 to 15 minutes until edges begin to colour.
Cool on the sheet on a wire rack.