Today is Lantern Festival – Yuan Xiao Jie 元宵节. It falls on the 15th day of the lunar new year, the night of the first full moon. (Many traditional Chinese festivals are on full moons, which occur in the middle of each month of the traditional calendar.) It also ends two weeks of New Year celebrations; today is the last legal day to set off fireworks in Beijing. (In case I had forgotten, I got two more text messages reminding me in the last two days!
The English name “Lantern Festival” isn’t a translation, although traditionally, lanterns are a part of Yuan Xiao Jie. There are lots of origin stories as to why lanterns were lit on the 15th, most of them relating to light as an offering to some god or other. Lanterns are still put up around Beijing all through Chinese new year, but I’ve not noticed more of them on Yuan Xiao Jie (although one year I did see paper lanterns set aloft in Langfang one year on Lantern Festival). For me, Lantern Festival has always been about fireworks and tang yuan dumplings.
The 元宵 of 元宵节 is a kind of dumpling made from glutinous rice flour also called 汤圆 tāng yuán. They are made differently in different places by different people – usually boiled, with and a variety of flavoured fillings. I’ve only ever had the black sesame or peanut filling. They are served in a light sweet soup, or just the hot water they were boiled in (which you don’t drink). Here’s a great recipe for tang yuan. They’re too fiddly for me to bother trying to make them myself. I just buy the frozen kind you boil at home.
Last weekend my house helper asked if I had any plans for Yuan Xiao Jie. I said no, just to eat some tang yuan at home, which led to a conversation about what her family does with their tang yuan. They normally buy the frozen ones, and she also prefers the black sesame flavour – calling them “very fragrant”. She gave me the two brands she thinks are the best – 思念 (sī niàn) and 三元 (sān yuán) – and told me to be sure to buy them from a big supermarket, as I might get fakes if I buy them at a small store. While they boil store-bought frozen tang yuan her family does, however, make their own sweet soup to serve them with. They use a water/sugar base, but she said the secret is to add a touch of vinegar (to give it a slight tang) and a drop of liquor (for a richer flavour).
I had dinner with friends (and friends of friends) the other night. We had both yu sheng and tang yuan, and a bunch of other yummy stuff – green beans with okra, drunk chicken with garlic, spicy sausage with cucumber, pig’s feet with peanuts… okay, I didn’t try the pigs’ feet but the rest was delicious! My friend says yu sheng is one of her favourite New Year foods. It was my first time eating yu sheng, which I wrote about last week. The ingredients (a lot of which were brought over from Singapore – but not the fish, we got sashimi salmon from a nearby Japanese restaurant) were all laid out beautifully and then we all joined in tossing it about with chopsticks whlie saying blessings for the new year.
Lantern Festival brings my last Chinese new year in Beijing to a close. Well, the last one I can count on. I do hope I’ll be back to celebrate it in China again some time in the future!