the streets of Taipei are quiet, and the air still full of last night's firecracker smoke. the city is decked out in red and gold to celebrate. the year of the monkey has begun, Xin Nian Kuai Le!
another expat recently told me that attending a Chinese New Year Eve dinner is as essential to understanding Taiwanese culture as it would be for a visitor to the US to experience Thanksgiving and Christmas. lucky for us, our friend Sharon and her grandparents invited us and a few other friends for dinner this weekend. you may recall her grandmother cooking us a huge Taiwanese feast last year - needless to say we were excited to attend.
[please note that any cultural inaccuracies here are due to my faulty memory or misunderstanding]
while we waited for dinner to be ready and snacked on candy and rice puffs, we discussed the Chinese Zodiac and got a rundown on all the things we should do to prepare for the new year. your house should be cleaned ahead of time, because any sweeping or washing [even laundry] done on New Year's Day could wipe away your good luck. it's also a good idea to put away all your clothes and not leave anything hanging - this ensures the year ahead will go smoothly.
[and yes, when I got home I made sure to tidy up and put away all my laundry.]
other traditions include hanging red and gold signs around the house - the one at the top of this post is the character for "spring." except it is hung upside-down because the word for "upside-down" sounds similar to "arrive." since Chinese New Year is also the Spring Festival, I bet you can guess what that means. [this is sometimes also done with the character for "good luck" in order to help bring fortune.]
red and other bright colors are lucky, whereas you should avoid wearing black and white. white in particular is considered the color of mourning in Taiwan. eating peanuts helps add to your longevity, and consuming sweet things on New Years Day will bring you sweetness throughout the year. one more important food rule: never finish off the last of a dish. leaving food left over means that in the coming year you will always have more than enough.
and with the 12 course meal that grandma cooked for us, that was not a problem!
the lunar new year is celebrated in a lot of asian cultures, though most commonly people call it Chinese New Year. some traditions are the same, and some are different. Sharon's uncle gave us a bit of family history - their ancestors came over from the Fuijan Province of China some 300 years ago and settled along the Tamsui River in Taipei. grandma and grandpa are 6th or 7th generation, so all the food here was very Taiwanese. and obviously, very delicious.
there were vegetarian, pork, and seafood bites - rolled in tofu or sometimes made into balls and fried. a plate full of pork liver and chicken and pig's stomach was balanced out with a serving of fresh vegetables. the braised pork dish with eggs was one of our favorites. I recommend spooning a helping with extra broth over your rice to soak up the goodness. I'm not the only one to endorse this method - as grandpa said when he saw one of us doing it "that's how I know you're Taiwanese!"
there was fried tofu with braised root vegetables, pork knuckle, and vegetables with jellyfish. and another version of one of the dishes we ate on our last visit: buddha jumps over the wall. this dish contains all kinds of ingredients, from taro root to tiny eggs. and earns its name by being so delicious "that even Buddha himself would jump over a wall to eat some."
another large steaming bowl contained fish stew, and somehow I missed getting a photo of the soup with rice noodles. but the chicken with chestnuts was another of my favorites. the nuts soaked up all the flavor and I couldn't hep but keep sneaking a few more onto my plate. I also confess I ate about half the plate of the cucumber salad above. I'm not sure what the clear jelly-like strands were [some kind of root or vegetable] but the dish was crisp and refreshing and... well, really really tasty!
some of the ingredients may have been unfamiliar, but it felt like any other family holiday meal - listen to tales from your grandparent's past, have some beer, laugh a lot, accidentally get into a political conversation with your uncle, eat until you are stuffed. we even had musical performances by both grandma [singing in Chinese along with her iPad] and grandpa [belting out German tunes when we asked about his travels there.] the company was just as good as the food.
and when you think you can't eat another bite or your chair might collapse underneath you - which might have happened to one of us at this dinner - grandma will bring out dessert.
in this case, dessert was a special cake made with rice, traditionally eaten for Chinese New Year and shaped like an opening flower to signify spring. the name of the cake is fa gao, which sounds like fa cai, meaning: to become prosperous. there were also platters of fruit, birthday cake, and possibly my new favorite Taiwanese dessert: nian gao.
nian gao is a cake made from sugar and glutinous rice flour. we ate it cut into small pieces and pan fried, though it can also be baked in the oven. the outside was caramelized and crispy and the inside was warm and gooey. I loved it so much that grandma sent me home with my very own! nian gao is eaten at New Year's because the name sounds similar to "growing taller" and means something like getting a promotion.
I think it was at this point in the evening that grandpa also proved he is smarter than all of us by correctly estimating the population of San Marino - the tiny country in the mountains of Italy which he visited 40 years ago. this feat was more impressive given that we had someone at our table who had spent much of his life living Italy. but, apparently Google and grandpa are always right!
while I certainly don't feel I'm an expert on local culture now, I'm so glad I was able to have this special experience with Chinese New Year Eve in Taiwan.
after dinner and before we left, grandma showed us where she was preparing her offering for the altar in their home: bowls of leftover rice and three sets of carefully stacked oranges. I felt so honored that she would take the time to share this, on top of all the lovely hospitality she had already shown us by opening up her home. being away from family as an expat can be difficult. but having friends and their family be so welcoming makes me want to fling out my arms in a "happy, so happy" kind of gesture.
Happy New Year, friends.