Words by Mansi Taylor
With the oncoming of the lunar new year, my roommate Fan Kan, and our adopted roommates Yanling Xiao, Jialu Tian bring the full force of their culinary skills to the table. Celebrated this year on February 1st, begins the Year of the Tiger and marks the transition between zodiac signs, last year having been the Year of the Ox. It begins a calendar year whose months are moon cycles which change annually. Celebrations last up to 16 days with “Little Year” from January 24th to January 31st when the preparations for the New Year begin, “Spring Festival” lasts from February 1st and goes on till February 11th, and the “Lantern Festival” whose preparations begin on the 12th and is celebrated on the 15th culminating the festivities. However, for my dear friends it only signifies that they are a year older and will celebrate the day without their families and in an unfamiliar setting.
Preparations have begun a week before in our student accommodation as it would’ve been back home in China for Fan Kan who has in a week’s time cooked three Peking ducks and bought a bunch of fish from the local Open Market. Being confident enough in his flavors that his major concern is the looks of it, our fridge has been littered with ducks, massive lobsters, fishes, and special marinades from different regions of China.
Having spent these many months together we have learnt that while our cultures, Indian and Chinese, have been politically and historically pitted against each other, we are very similar when it comes to cultural practices and food. The Hindu new year spans over many days just like the Chinese New Year and for younger generations, who aren’t necessarily overzealous when it comes to religion, it comes down to meeting family and getting some extra cash from the elders. The kitchen that Fan Kan and I, Chinese and Indian, share is filled with seasonings and spices, and more bottles of soy sauce than we know what to do with. We’ve both discovered familiar childhood flavors in each other’s native dishes and the “Asian-ness” of our shared household is striking.
I asked the three of them how the day would start, go on and what it would entail. Jialu Tian had a slightly different answer as she belongs to Changchun which is in North China while Fan Kan and Yanling Xiao reside in Shenzhen in the South. The only difference being that in the North they would eat dumplings on New Year’s Eve and in the South, hotpot. Everything else on the menu is standard among the regions. Per my understanding, they wake up on the New Year, take a bath in citrus infused water which they believe will bring prosperity and safety, then and go to their neighbors’ houses to wish them prosperity and luck, they decorate their houses with poems about a fulfilling and happy year ahead. The parents cook, the children play with their cousins, and the ones involved in neither, drink and play poker or mahjong. The background score is provided by a show hosted by the Chinese government called Chunwan which consists of singing, dancing, magic and old school family fun. Alcohol is served with dinner which is a mammoth 10-14 course meal, excluding the soup, and at the end of the night tea is consumed as the day is spent welcoming prosperity with the family. The concept of family seems to be very important to the Chinese and especially this time of year. In all my interviews for this article, there was a keen focus on the family being together.
In Yanling Xiao’s home, they gather in a big circle with a hotpot in the center from which everyone eats because “we are together because we are the family”. Each member of the family must eat shrimp balls with Chinese chives which they believe will give them “facia” and that the coming year will be prosperous, the same goes with them eating fish to celebrate the expression of “niannianyouyu” which I understand as “surplus money”. For her, cooking these familiar meals in England has become the only way to welcome the new year. Those celebrating usually end the day by drinking tea and lighting firecrackers.
As someone not actively cooking and being the helper, Jialu Tian explained the role of the guests on the auspicious day. In her home, the meal would start with dumplings, pork leg, fish, shrimp and other multiple dishes. The guests would snack on fruits and nuts while playing mahjong and sipping on Chinese white wine. They skip the traditional tea, and the children have their own cans of cola or fanta. The adults would sit on one table and the children on another receiving their red pockets with cash inside. There doesn’t seem to be a religious symbol to their meals but a chance for the whole family to get together. This year, Jialu Tian spent hours in the kitchen rolling the dumpling dough and making tired faces at the timelapse she took of her whole kitchen assembly line required to assemble the hundred plus dumplings they made in a day.
Fan Kan, on the other hand, took charge of this whole operation. He curated the menu with the help of Yanling Xiao, delegated people by telling them what to buy from where, keeping in mind everyone’s class schedule. In his hometown, his family raises their own ducks and chickens and are very proud to do so. For the new year feast, they will cut, dry the wood and make the fire themselves. Being influenced by Le Grande Maison Tokyo, a Japanese TV show, he believes that food is a medium of communication between the chef and the guest, that food can bring happiness especially after a tiring day. For him, New Years is all about meeting his cousins and eating the rich delicacies that his mother and aunties would make. They would watch Chunwan and even if no one is watching, the sound of it playing in the background will complete the festivities. It’s very important for his family that the environment is bustling with activity and that everyone is “making some noise”, as he puts it.
After a week of preparations and what seemed like hundreds of shopping sprees, their New Year’s meal has been a roaring success as they sit around the table with their friends and let me take photographs of their feast. The Chunwan is playing on a white screen through a projector, their glasses are full and in that huge kitchen of a decorated flat in Lullington, they feel like home.