This week is officially the Christmas week. But, I ain't going to talk about Christmas for now. Some of you may know what this is all about.
For some reasons that I still haven't figured out, the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival always falls on Dec 22 of the Gregorian calendar (陽歷) each year. We Chinese call this day 冬至 (pronounced in Mandarin as dong zhi, or in Cantonese as doo-NG jee), which means "the arrival of winter." You may think I've just posted a ridiculously pointless question: doesn't winter officially start on Dec 22 every year!? Here's the deal.
What's surprised me is that dong zhi is so unique. It's so unique that most other Chinese celebrations don't always coincide with what's recorded in the Gregorian calendar. Well, that's obviously because we run according to the Lunar calendar (陰歷). A great instance is Chinese/Lunar New Year. (It's aptly worded as 農歷新年 among the southern Chinese and 春節 among the northern Chinese, which means "Spring Festival." This indeed demonstrates the cultural differences between the North and South of China: one celebration with two different meanings. Such fascination!) Another great one will be the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節).
The two aforementioned celebrations don't have a "fixed place" in the Gregorian calendar. Take Lunar New Year for example. We celebrated the First Day of our New Year on Jan 26 this year and we'll celebrate it again on Feb 14 next year. (Hey, it's going to be a two-in-one Valentine's!) Just like the West, Chinese also celebrate the coming of a new year. And yet, we can never ever have it together on the same day. Bah ... =(
The same goes to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Just like many other cultures that run according to the Sun, the Chinese celebrate the blessings that autumn brings. But, it can never be observed on one single day altogether. The Chinese harvest festival can be celebrated at a different time each year, ranging from sometime in between late-August and early October. Nonetheless, the point is it always falls on the fifteenth day of the Eighth Month in the Lunar calendar (八月十五).
Four Malaysian-Chinese students, including me, gathered and made some tang yuan for the dong zhi last year when I was still in the States. These are plain tang yuan to be coated in a mixture of sugar & roasted honey peanut to serve.
So, don't all these make winter solstice a rather unique cultural observation? Both the East and West are observing the same thing. And yet, we're doing it simultaneously this time! The Chinese have long associated the practice of eating glutinous rice balls with dong zhi. These chewy, sticky rice balls are known as 湯圓 (Mandarin: tang yuan / Cantonese: t-ONG yoo-WEEN). In Chinese, it literally has the meaning of "reunion" as "yuan" means round. For us, things are perfect as long as everything is round. =D Traditionally, tang yuan can be served plain as dessert in thin gingered syrup. They oftentimes come with sweet fillings, too, such as a mixture of sugar and crushed roasted peanut, sweetened azuki bean paste, black sesame or lotus seed paste. Of course, there are countless ways for you to serve them nowadays. I am more comfortable with the idea of sweet tang yuan. However, I often pout when the thought of savory tang yuan strikes me. I'd still eat savory ones ... not to the point of detesting them though, LOL!
Actually, my family isn't allowed to revel on any of these special occasions--not even on the coming Lunar New Year. We've been observing the Confucian (儒) practice of one-year solemnity to show our grief, love and respect for my late Grandpa who's just passed away peacefully on Father's Day this year. (OK, this is considered good enough. Back in the olden days, it was three years of solemnity!) I feel sorry that I couldn't be home to see him for the one last time. Just about three months ago, close to 40 of my Buddhist-Taoist family held a "celebration" to mark the 100th day of his "reunion" with my late Grandma. (I was already back in Malaysia from the States then.) We burned all kind of stuff for him ... Though I wasn't supposed to show soberness, I couldn't help but wept. To make it worse, I was the only one who did this!
To say the least, I'd still enjoy myself in the special occasions of different cultures, including Christmas. But, mine are always secular. PERIOD. That's to satiate my yearning to learn about different cultures. Deep down, I still remember my late Grandpa. And at the same time, my heart itches whenever I see pictures of tang yuan! =_="""
Nonetheless, that doesn't mean my family is "banned" from having a reunion dinner--or, I should say a good family meal that has more variety and is more interesting than usual. Family reunion dinner is part of dong zhi anyway. And to mark this special day, we just welcomed a new little life into our family last Thursday. We've been busy getting to know and cheer him up for that he's just been taken away from his mom. Poor dear! We absolutely heart you, Chevy!
This was how he took his nap on one afternoon! Hahaha ...!
He's just a pupp, looking for new toys around our house!
Probably, now is time of the year when most of us are getting ready for family reunion. And, food no doubt plays a great part. So, here's to share a great dish with you: braised pork ribs and hard-boiled eggs in sweet and sour dark soy sauce. You can also call it 5-4-3-2-1 pork ribs (五一排骨). I first learned to make this real QUICK and NO-FUSS, SIMPLE dish from one of my favorite sources of culinary ideas: 私家廚房 (meaning "Private Kitchen.") And, I've made this a thousand times since my days as a student abroad. It's my all-time favorite!
In Chinese, 五一排骨 literally means "five-one pork ribs." Why? The name of this dish is the formula! All we need are five main seasonings and two ingredients to create a symphony of flavors in the pork ribs. Overnight marinating and long hours of braising are the key to this sweet and sour meat that's so succulent and burst, full of flavors! Here's also where you can be more creative and frugal: utilize the great flavor of the marinade by throwing in a couple or more shelled hard-boiled eggs as you braise the meat. In a few hours, you will be rewarded with finger-licking pork ribs and braised eggs with bowls and bowls of fragrant steamed rice.
Again, there's no fast and fixed rule to Chinese cooking: everything is eye-balled. The following is just a recipe for reference, as indicated by the name of this dish. The seasonings can be easily found at any Asian grocers, too, if you happen to be living in a Western country e.g. the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe.
If you do celebrate the arrival of winter, here's to wish you a good day on Winter Solstice. In Chinese, we'd say, "過冬" ... meaning "to celebrate the coming of winter." I hope you can try this out and share it with your loved ones during this holiday season. 大家開飯囉！(Let's eat, everyone!)
Braised Pork Ribs and Hard-Boiled Eggs in Sweet and Sour Dark Sauce 五一排骨 ("Five-One" Pork Ribs)
Adapted from Winnie Leung's, from 私家廚房
450 - 500g pork ribs -- washed clean, patted dry and cut into smaller square chunks
5 Tbsp water
4 Tbsp dark soy sauce 老抽
3 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp Chinkiang vinegar 鎮江醋
1 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine
**I use Shaoxing wine 紹興酒
Adequate amount of cooking oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed them with any one side of your knife (I use Chinese cleaver)
3 slabs fresh ginger
3 hard-boiled eggs, cooled and shelled
- Prepare the pork ribs as directed, then marinate them with (A) together overnight.
**I place the mixture all in a bowl, cover it with cling wrap and then stick the whole deal in the fridge.
- On the next day, remove the mixture from the fridge
- Heat a saucepan/pot (that's large enough to hold everything) over medium-high heat till it's hot, then pour in some cooking oil and wait till it's pretty hot
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, then throw in (B) to sauté till fragrant over the now gentler, slower heat
- Once you start to smell fragrance coming out of the sautéed garlic and ginger, dump in the pork ribs and marinade; stir the mixture continuously to cook them briefly (for 2 - 3 minutes)
- Stir in the 5 Tbsp water and hard-boiled eggs to the mixture, then mix them altogether just to combine.
- Slightly lower the heat and cover the whole deal with the saucepan/pot lid, then let it simmer to braise for 30 minutes--1 hour for the best result.
- Once it's done cooking, remove the whole deal from the heat. Now, scoop some of the pork ribs, eggs and the sweet-sour sauce over bowls of steamy hot rice! Serve!