(Rice Dumplings in Bamboo Leaves) 粽子
A traditional Taiwanese dish
May 31 (2006), is Dragon Boat Festival. In China and
in Chinese communities worldwide, that means boat races
for some, but delicious zongzi for all. At this time
of year, the unmistakable smell of bamboo leaves is in
the air, and there are few things more tantalising to
the nostrils than steaming zongzi. Zongzi are eaten all
year round but during the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth
day of the fifth month of the lunar year) and for the
following month or so, millions are consumed. Normally
eaten as a snack; a hefty snack – one Taiwanese zongzi
eaten in the afternoon will keep you going until dinnertime.
Two zongzi and, well … forget dinner.
main ingredient of zongzi is glutinous rice. Other ingredients
and flavourings vary from region to region. They come
in different sizes and shapes, and some are wrapped in
leaves other than bamboo. Most are savoury, some are
sweet, some are boiled, some are steamed. Professional
zongzi makers are getting more creative every year, but
I have never eaten anything better than the product made
from the recipe below for typical pyramid shaped steamed
Quite a lot of ingredients are involved,
and a trip to the Chinese grocery will be necessary if
only to buy the bamboo leaves. But I reckon the key to
a great taste is the fatty pork. The fat turns to oil
when it is cooked and its flavour diffuses through the
zongzi. Don't be swayed by the anti-fat Nazis into buying
the leanest meat you can find – skimp on fat and you
lose flavour. Besides, the small piece of pork in each
zongzi is just one of many ingredients.
I won't kid you by telling you that making
zongzi is easy. It is time consuming, and you will want
to allocate the best part of a day for shopping, preparation,
and cooking. It can be tricky putting zongzi together
and wrapping them into nice pyramids – organizing a little
work gang to help is a good idea. So, if you are going
to do it, scale up. My recipe makes 20 pieces but for
a little extra labour, you could double the quantities
and make 40.
Tree fruit in Taiwan is normally
grown on steep land where paddy rice is impossible to cultivate.
Around the hills outside Taichung, where I often ride my
bicycle, there are countless orchards, and over the course
of a year I see many kinds of fruit come and go with the
seasons. March and April is the time of the loquat.
trees stand about two metres high. Lately they are all
dotted with puffed-up paper bags. The bags are tied to
branches and enclose ripening bunches of orange-coloured
loquats. They keep birds off, discourage insects, and
by keeping the direct sun off, make for a sexier fruit
at the market. Farmers prune loquat trees severely, forcing
the fruit to push skyward rather than hang down. The
effect of the bagged bunches can be a little disconcerting
on first encounter – a little like stumbling on
a covert Ku Klux Klan meeting with the shrunken, hooded
heads of hundreds of Klansmen protruding from the foliage
large-leaved loquat tree is indigenous to south eastern
China, and that region is still the most important area
of Chinese cultivation. Today though, a thousand years
after the loquat was introduced from China, Japan is
the world's leading producer. The species name japonica, reflects
an incorrect belief that the fruit is native to Japan.
fruit, skin, seeds, and leaves of the tree all have medicinal
uses. The loquat, according to Chinese traditional medicine
is useful in treating cough, thirst, constipation, asthma,
nosebleeds, and pharyngolaryngitis.
Other sources say rosacea can
be treated with loquat
Taiwanese prefer to eat many
fruits unripe (plums and peaches for example), but the
loquat is not one of them and it is allowed to mature fully
on the tree. Loquats have a thin peel which is easy to
remove with fingers or a knife. You can eat around the
kernels or cut the fruit in two and pluck them out. Loquats
bruise quite easily and do not keep well out of the fridge.
always seems to be a disparity between the loquat's appearance
which cries out, tropical
and the actual taste, which is mild, even weak. Loquats
are nice enough, but hardly what I would call an exciting
On the day of Chinese New Year's Eve,
just as I was leaving our local produce market, a car
swerved towards the curb. I noticed the car because it
pulled up with a jerk just a couple of feet from a family
trying to cross the road. The driver bolted from the
car to a stall in front of the market. The back seat
of her car was already packed with groceries. Clearly,
it seemed, the banquet that evening for her large extended
family, was her responsibility. She had stopped at the
market for a last minute purchase. When I say, 'a car
swerved towards the curb', towards is all I
mean, as there remained between the curb and the side
of her car, enough space for a skilled driver to manoeuvre
another very compact car, such as a Mini. A couple of
minutes later she rushed back carrying a potted kumquat
bush bearing dozens of tiny orange fruit. She placed
it on the passenger seat beside her and drove off, ether
oblivious or unconcerned at the line of cars she had
been blocking on the narrow street behind. I was glad
I didn't feel as harried as she looked, but I was only
cooking for three while she might be cooking for thirteen,
including a domineering mother-in-law.
Just before Chinese New Year fruiting
kumquat bushes can be seen for sale all over Taiwan.
Because the ripe kumquat (cumquat) symbolizes prosperity,
Chinese like to give the plants to relatives and friends.
My own potted tree never seems to bear fruit at this
time. This year, as we saw in the Year of the Dog (February),
it was blossoming, and so we will have to wait until
late April for fruit. Fortunately the prosperity faculty
of kumquats applies all year round, not only to the New
Year period. Supposedly. A couple of years ago, when
I pointed out our tree, heavy with ripening fruit to
my wife, she was nearly gleeful. We were going to have
a fantastic year she announced; a year in which everything
goes well, a year of great health and happiness, a year
when the heavens rain great bounties down on our humble
heads! That sounded ridiculous, but not so ridiculous
as to prevent me making a mental note to start buying
weekly lottery tickets. In the final rinse, that year
did turn out relatively calamity-free, but the only real
bounty I recall was an abundance of kumquats, which,
ironically, my wife finds too sour to eat. Who knows,
perhaps things might have been different if mental
note to self regarding lottery had not been forgotten
as soon as it was filed.
The kumquat plant was originally assumed
to be a citrus but was later revealed to have a somewhat
simpler structure than citrus and was alloted its own
genus, Fortunella, after well-known Scots botanist Robert
Fortune, who first bought the kumquat from its native
south east China to Europe in 1846.
There is something oddly amusing about
the name kumquat, which derives from Cantonese, gam
gwat, Just the thought of the fruit brings out the
worst of puns in me: kumquat may (come what may). Unlike
oranges, lemons and grapefruits, the kumquat has never
really achieved mainstream market acceptance. It has
remained on the fringe – a cutesy-wutesy, doll's house
The small size of the thorny
evergreen kumquat plant makes it ideal for urban gardeners
with limited space – which describes about 99 percent
of Taiwanese urban green thumbs. The wonderful thing
about the kumquat bush is that it will bear fruit more
than once a year if the weather is warm enough. The fruit
grows to about 3 cm (1 inch) round. With thin, finely
textured peel, and tiny seeds, kumquats are normally
eaten whole, peel, seeds and all. The taste runs quite
tart – the peel is sweeter than the fruit itself. As
far as I can tell there are two basic varieties in Taiwan:
round (Marumi F. japonica Swing), and oblong
(Nagami F. margarita Swing). Except at New Year
when the fruit is left on the bush to ripen fully, the
round type is usually sold green or semi-ripe, and is
used to make kumquat tea. The oblong fruits are sweeter
and are eaten ripe.
According to traditional
Chinese medicine, kumquat helps eliminate phlegm and
is a good remedy for a sore throat or a nagging cough.
Health-wise, kumquats house a good measure
of vitamin C, plus potassium, and beta-carotene. And
because the fruit is usually eaten whole, there is an
extra nutritional boost from the peel and seeds. According
to traditional Chinese medicine, kumquat helps eliminate
phlegm and is a good remedy for a sore throat or a nagging
cough. Last week I happened to be down with a cold myself,
and the two or three pots of kumquat tea I drank did
seem helpful. Chinese pharmacies sell a traditional throat
lozenge made of dried kumquat peel. According to Henry
C. Lu, the fruit, prepared in specific ways is also
useful in treating indigestion, whooping cough, hernial
pain, ad poor appetite.
In Taiwan kumquats are also sold dried,
and used to make preserves. I was once given a bottle
of kumquat sauce, though I was at a total loss as to
how to use it, and still am. Kumquat assumes its major
role at any of Taiwan's thousands of tea shops and tea
stands in the form of kumquat tea.
This is our modest New Year's Eve dinner
for three people. From left, clockwise: Steamed Fish,
Guangdong-style Preserved Sausages with Leeks, Ginseng
Chicken, Boiled Dumplings, Stir Fried Mustard Cabbage.
The New Year dishes are imbued with great meaning.
Here is what I found out:
Whole Steamed Fish
Fish is a metaphor for abundance. Half the fish is eaten on New Year's Eve,
the other half is eaten the next day – symbolizing that there is a surplus
to carry through from the old year to the new year.
Guangdong-style Sausages with
In past times, the most commonly eaten meat was preserved. Eating preserved
meat such as these sausages relates to self-sufficiency.
A whole chicken including head and feet, symbolizes prosperity, particularly
at work, and family unity.
Boiled Dumplings Jiaozi supposedly reminds people of ancient
coins. On New Year's Eve these dumplings must be
eaten whole, in one bite, lest your future good fortune
be left in tatters.
Stir Fried Mustard Cabbage
Mustard cabbage is one of the great vegetable staples in Taiwan. Another name
for it is longevity vegetable.
On the Eve of the Dog, a
I am casually asked by Taiwanese what Christmas is
all about, I have a stock answer ready. I don't dwell
on the origins or the religious rituals, instead I
just equate Christmas with the Chinese New Year. Both
occasions involve a holiday, a family reunion, the
eating of ritual foods, and gift giving, (for Chinese
that means the gift of cash – brand new bills). Everyone
is supposed to have a great time. Many people, in particular
children, actually do.
you live abroad, particularly in a non-Christian
country, getting into the Christmas spirit can
be challenging. For a long while I did not bother
too much with Christmas, other than knocking
back an excessive number of cold ales with other
far flung foreigners. Since having a child though,
I have made more of an effort to inject some
of the old spirit back into Christmas. So every
year we put up an authentic plastic Christmas
tree (it is exactly the same as the one we had
when I was a kid – what could be more authentic
than that?), Santa calls, we exchange presents,
and play that Bing Crosby song ad nauseam.
We have, I think, managed to instill a little
of the excitement of Christmas in our son. So
in that sense, Christmas is a success. But for
myself, it is hard to really get into Christmas
without an actual holiday and lots of family
and like-minded friends around.
here we are just five weeks after Christmas Day and
Chinese New Year has arrived. While it always seems
to come a little too soon – the Christmas tree only
got packed away a couple of days ago – living in Taiwan,
I find myself getting far more excited about Chinese
New Year than Christmas. As a foreigner, everything,
of course seems exotic. That's one reason. But it is
also that there is a holiday, (six days, including
weekends for most workers), and everybody is celebrating
together. There is an atmosphere, a festive atmosphere.
Chinese New Year is the most important of all the Chinese
festivals. The full
gamut of customs associated with the New Year are
many, complex and can be onerous. For many families
nowadays, it is New Year Lite. But the family
reunion dinner on New year's Eve remains sacrosanct.
days, hotels, big restaurants, convenience stores,
and even supermarkets are willing to arrange delivery
of all kinds of sumptuous dishes right to your dining
table on New Year's Eve. But where's the tradition
in that? And while the caterers might cart away the
dirty dishes, there will still be some cleaning up
most New Year dinners, the food is not particularly
exotic. A typical spread looks like an abundance of
home-style dishes. Yet nearly every dish is meshed
in some sort of symbolism. Customs vary, but come Saturday
evening, one of the dishes you will find on Chinese
dining tables worldwide, is fish.
any time of the year, Chinese prefer their fish whole
– head, tail, skin, and often fins, all intact.
any time of the year, Chinese prefer their fish whole
– head, tail, skin, and often fins, all intact. Being
used to fillets of fish, this took me quite a long
time to get used to when I first came to Taiwan. The
small bones in some fish annoyed the hell out of me,
and often at a banquet I would just avoid the fish.
Gradually, with the aid of the perfect tool for picking
fish meat away from bones – chopsticks – I came to
appreciate the flavour and juiciness of a whole fish,
cooked in its own natural package, so to speak – its
New Year, the symbolic value of a fish far outweighs
its nutritional and taste value. This is because the
word for fish (yu) has exactly the same pronunciation
in Mandarin as the word for surplus, and so on the
last night of the old year, the fish is left half eaten.
The remainder, including the intact head and tail,
symbolizes abundance, a surplus to carry through to
the new year. The other half of the fish will be consumed
the following day. Right now fish is the only thing
I am certain to prepare for our New Year's Eve dinner.
This is how I am going to do it: Steamed
Fish Recipe. It is a really simple dish that requires
only the most basic arsenal of Chinese ingredients.
Happy Chinese New Year.
Year of the Dog (Chinese
According to the Chinese calendar,
Sunday January 29 is the first day of year number 4,704
Year of the Dog.
Tea Bush (Camellia sinensis)
"Better to be deprived
of food for three days, than tea for one."
– Chinese proverb
tea looks like before it is picked, processed and packed
– though the leaves shown here are too mature to be used
for high quality tea.
Chinese rarely sit down to a lunch or dinner that does not include soup (in the case of noodle soup, soup is the meal). Unlike the Western custom of having soup before the main course, Chinese prefer to eat soup during or towards the end of a meal. At a casual meal people tend to pick up the bowl and drink directly from it; in a more formal setting, spoons are required. At a banquet several soup dishes may be consumed, always with the traditional flat-bottomed ceramic spoon.