Written by Mark Graham of South China Morning Post, the following article shares tasty traditions around China over winter solstice, which is generally celebrated in Hong Kong as a public holiday. From Chinese herbal soup to Eight-treasures sticky rice, here’s quick overview of the hearty treats often eaten on this cold day…
In northern China, where lakes and canals are already frozen over, and minus 10-degree Celsius night-time temperatures are the norm for months to come, warming winter foods are taken very seriously.
Around China tonight, plates will be piled high as people mark the winter solstice.
The celebratory theme is the same across the nation, but the form varies by region. In the warmer southerly climes, the focus is on chicken, pork and fish, whereas in the north, it’s more about lamb stews, double-boiled soups and hearty dumplings.
In Cantonese tradition, people present a whole chicken to worship the gods and their ancestors, prior to cutting off the head.
That will not be an option this year, as the government started a chicken cull and three-week ban on the sale of fresh chicken yesterday.
A whole strip of pork belly is also presented before cooking.
Although nowadays winter solstice plays second fiddle to Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, it was a major event in years gone by, when the nation took a day off for celebrations. It is thought to have its roots in the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), when emperors and commoners offered sacrifices to their ancestors and the gods.
In the newly affluent China, the middle classes can afford the luxury of marking the date in the warmth of a hotel, ordering food that was well beyond the budget of the previous generation.
The Grand Hyatt in Beijing has a series of dishes prepared by chef Goh Wooi Cheat.
The temperature in the capital rarely rises above zero in winter and regularly drops to minus 15 degrees Celsius, leading to a big demand for hearty dishes.
“Winter solstice is the shortest day in the year and one of the coldest, so people drink soups with Chinese herbs,” says Goh, head chef at the Noble Court restaurant. “One of the favourites is double-boiled cordyceps soup with fish maw, sea whelk, white lotus seed and dried scallops. We chose this combination of ingredients to stimulate the immune system and improve kidney and lung functions.”
Goh hails from Singapore, where the tradition is to eat sweet dumplings at winter solstice. Dumplings, sticky rice and red bean desserts are popular in the southern parts of China.
Zhang Mei, who runs the adventure travel company WildChina, has celebrated winter solstice in different parts of the country, including her native Yunnan province in the southwest.
“We eat anything that is made of sticky rice. Eight-treasures rice is a favourite. It is considered heavy, in the sense that it is filling and usually hard to digest, but in winter people need to store more energy to combat against the cold, so heavy food is fine,” she says.
“It is also traditional to visit the graves of ancestors. It was a custom to burn paper clothes and money as a way of saying we are bringing you winter clothes into the other world, but now burning is not allowed, so we simply present paper clothes. Now people tend to be more flexible with the date.”
In days gone by, the slaughtering of a goat or lamb would have been part of winter solstice. Nowadays, city dwellers order from a restaurant menu particularly hearty stews and grills, or prepare chicken and dumplings .
Unlike southerners, northerners have no problem with the strong taste and pungent smell of lamb. One of the most popular snacks in Beijing at any time of year is chuaner, chunks of lamb, chicken or beef grilled over charcoal.
Goh is an enthusiastic fan of the meat claiming it is nutritious, tasty and healthy.
Photo by Wang Dan