happy new year 2014!

I know . . . I know. No more radio silence! I promise we have some toasty specials for you this Chinese New Year . . . the weather’s unforgiving, but you won’t regret it. Good food solves everything. 🙂

From 30 January until 2 February (ahem, I know that’s tomorrow), we’ve got some brand spankin’ new specials to ring in the lunar new year. Check ’em out!

Mei Shung's Chinese New Year 2014 specials menu

never too late for well wishes

I admit this could have been posted, like, this morning, but I’m still getting a handle on this timing thing (it’s a resolution). Happy lunar new year! I hope you took advantage of our sweet Chinese New Year specials this weekend. As Chicago Restaurant Week 2013 wraps up, as well, I hope you have enjoyed some real fine dining! (We didn’t do Restaurant Week at Mei Shung this year, as I feel it would have just confused my mom. ;))

2013 is the year of the snake

water snake

Since I posted rather extensively last year about the history of Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival), you can refer to those posts, or this other (non-Wikipedia) article I found, to learn about the holiday or brush up on your trivia:

what to eat on chinese new year

happy new year

china holidays

Just for fun and variety, I thought we could go into another fun aspect that the (lunar) new year brings: the Chinese zodiac!

Currently, we’re still in the year of the dragon, but as this year comes to a close, the Chinese are preparing for little snake babies. Incidentally, I found out through reading Jeff Primack’s Mastering 5 Elements that the Chinese believe so strongly in their zodiac and “mystical” things of this nature that there are times of the year where sales of birth control-related goods skyrocket and also when they go dry. This is probably less so for given animals, but more so in the less-known elemental phases of the earth:

metal

metal

Fire

Fire

tree
tree

water
water

earth
earth

These five elements are what the book Mastering 5 Elements is based upon, but instead of “tree,” some sources prefer to use the term “wood.” Now, Chinese astrology can actually get pretty complex, integrating the elements with each animal sign (of which there are 12 — see picture below) with Chinese philosophy (yin and yang), medicine, and divination (for long-winded, more thorough explanations, see this article). This is a lot to swallow for those of us accustomed to simple astrological signs and traits (like me), so I won’t go into it. Suffice it to say that the elements and animal signs overlap, creating a sort of “compound” sign.

So this year, we are entering the age of the water snake. Coincidentally, this is the exact same time my mother was born.

According to chinesezodiac.com, the Water Snake is:

influential, motivated, insightful, and highly intellectual … These snakes work well with others and enjoy being recognized and rewarded. They’ll reveal feelings to those closest to them, but no one else.

If you’re curious to know more about Chinese astrology, there are plenty of books and Internet sources to calculate precisely what sign your birthdate fell under. (I, personally, am a water boar.)

I’ll leave you with this well-wishing Chinese New Year 2013 video (not ours):

looks like we’re still here (dongzhi festival)

Well, we braced ourselves for the Mayan apocolypse, and it seems things are still intact.

From http://bit.ly/X4UEV2

From http://bit.ly/X4UEV2 — such drama!

What better time for another cultural lesson?

Apparently, the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival, also known as the Dongzhi Festival (the “extreme of winter”), happens today. In certain parts of China, such as Guangdong and Canton, the Winter Solstice Festival rivals — and sometimes even surpasses — the celebration of the lunar New Year (the one coming up in February) in importance! Thanks to my friend Robert, for cluing me in, when my own parents are too busy planning for Western holidays in Chicago to give me a heads up. 🙂 (Robert is married to a Chinese woman.) Evidently, some people treat the Winter Solstice as the dawning of a new year instead of waiting around for Chinese New Year. A little confusing for a “hybrid” like me, but anyway . . .

The Winter Solstice, to recap for those of us rusty on our astronomy, is the day when one hemisphere of the Earth (north or south) is farthest away from the sun, resulting in the longest period of nighttime. It usually marks the first official day of winter (at least, here), roughly around the 21st each December. This year, it’s today! The upside of the solstice — and yes, we have summer solstices, too (incidentally flipped on the hemisphere opposite ours) — is that it’s precisely when these long winter nights have peaked, and days start getting longer as we transition back into the warmer months.

In ancient Chinese “yin-yang” philosophy, the Winter Solstice symbolizes the restoration of balance within the cosmos. It’s the time when positive yang energy re-enters, and, consequently, the return of warmth?

yin yang

Photo courtesy of http://bit.ly/RYWDJ6

Just like our traditional Western holidays, the Dongzhi Festival is a time of family reunion and eating. (Interestingly, people of the same last names are also expected to gather at this time. Must be fun for all those Chens out there.) The food associated with the Winter Solstice Festival is, true to Chinese mentalities of, um, just never quite living up to expectation (what? I said nothing), meant to remind us that we are now a year older and should strive for improvement during the new year.

What exactly are these shame-inducing goods?

Photo credit to the Taiwan Culture Portal

Photo credit to the Taiwan Culture Portal

They eat tangyuan, which are essentially little dumpling balls, made of glutinous flour and stuffed with sesame paste, peanut powder, or even plain. They’re then cooked and served in a sweet soup or broth. According to the Taiwan Culture Portal:

This festive food is eaten for several symbolic reasons. The word “tang” means “soup” and the word “yuan” means “round” or “ball,” and when the two words are combined, the phrase is similar in sound with the term for “reuniting” (tuan yuan) in Mandarin Chinese.

And what’s a celebration without a little mythology and sacrifice? I hear the Taiwanese also select a few tangyuan, in the shape of sacrificial animals (chicken, sheep, duck, etc.) to stick to the back of chairs, windows, and doors — this is an offering to ancestors, as well as a type of talisman to protect against evil that might come to harm the kids.

In Taiwan, also, it is a time to enjoy what’s known as “tonic foods,” which are meant to help immunity and keep you strong during the frigid winter months. These include different types of hot pot (loosely described by yours truly as a Chinese version of fondue) — which, now that I mention it, I’m happy to say my parents are thinking about making hot pot available to you fine ladies and gents sometime soon (probably in the new year — the Western one, that is)!

None of this could have been written (by me, anyway) without the help of Wikipedia or the Taiwan Culture Portal — so please check them out if you would like to learn more about the specifics of the festival.

Hope to see you soon as the days start getting longer!

(holiday) mid-autumn festival

This Sunday is the Mid-Autumn Festival (a.k.a. Moon Festival) — which means it’s time for moon cake!

You also should know by now that Chinese festivals come equipped with legends to explain the customs surrounding the festival. So, the story behind the Moon Festival is rather tragic and romantic (much like Double Seven “Chinese Valentine’s Day”), which I learned all about via this Chinese tourism website.

The Moon Festival occurs on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which this year falls on 30 September. It takes its name from the fact that it is always celebrated during the time of year that the moon is at its roundest and fullest. Families gather to eat together and share well wishes with each other and the members that are far away.

The Story

Rumor has it that waaay back in the day, the planet was insufferably hot due to Earth’s having 10(!!!) suns. Naturally, circumstances called for a hero — a man worthy of myth — and a guy named Hou Yi stepped up and shot down nine of the 10 suns — huzzah!

Of course, this attracted admirers from far and wide to learn from him and acquire those mad “skillz.”

Hou Yi then also met a lovely woman named Chang E who would become his wife. They lived very happily, and things were good until one day when Hou Yi decided to step out to meet a friend. . . .

It seems nothing good ever comes from stories that involve Wangmu, the queen of the heavens (remember what she did to her daughter?). So Hou Yi runs into the Goddess of Heaven, who’s all, “Check out this elixir I’ve got for you. This is what those fools over on Mount Olympus could’ve used instead of sending that Hercules guy after all those crazy tasks — drink it, and you’ll become immortal! And you’ll be sent up to my turf.”

So, you know that whenever there’s a hero, there’s always a Judas. A guy who had come from afar to learn shooting “skillz” from Hou Yi back in the day, Peng Meng, just so happened to see what his old mentor did next.

Because he loved his wife Chang E so much, he went home with the elixir and told her, “Honey, the Goddess of Heaven gave me this herself. It’ll send whoever drinks it up to heaven and make ’em immortal. I’ll let you hold on to it for safekeeping.”

Three fateful days later, Hou Yi went out for a hunt, and Peng Meng broke in to their house, where the wife was. “Yo Chang!” he barked. “You give me that elixir!”

Knowing she was no match for his strength, she was forced to drink the elixir herself to keep it away from the brute.

As soon as she downed it, she shot straight through the window and straight for the heavens — but her love for her hubby drew her to the closest heavenly body to Earth, the moon.

“CHANG E!!!!” Hou Yi cried to the sky, when he realized what had transpired.

To his amazement, he saw a figure that looked just like his wife appear from the moon.

He then took all the food he knew she liked and brought it to an altar to offer as a sacrifice to her. To offer him emotional consolation and support, neighbors lit incense and made food to commemorate his kind and lovely wife, year after year.

The Food

So, of course the most iconic culinary tribute to the Moon Festival is the moon cake. From the aforementioned travel site, they are described like this:

The moon cake is a kind of cookie with various fillings and on the surface are printed different artistic patterns depicting the story of Chang E flying to the moon. People treated this kind of food as one of the sacrificial offerings to the moon in the old days. Today, it has become an indispensable food while appreciating the bright moon for every family. Moon cakes come in various flavors which change according to the region but common fillings are nuts, sugar, sesame, ham and egg yolk. Travel China Guide

The moon cake is also round, naturally, which represents the reunion of a family, but nowadays, moon cake is also gifted between friends and family alike to wish each other a long and happy life. Some customs include paying respect to the moon itself or doing dragon dances.

Now, I asked my mother if we ever had moon cake here for the day of the festival, and she said no — but she’ll certainly change her mind if enough of you ask her for it!

(Incidentally, you can also make it yourself with this recipe I found.)

What do you think? Would you like to preorder some moon cake for Sunday? If so, drop me a comment here, on Facebook, or give us a call at 773/728.5778 and let us know.

Have a delicious day!

gonna party like it’s duanwu festival . . . just kidding

Here’s a fun story.

The Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, is coming up. . . . My mom suggested I research the holiday last week to tell you about, but apart from telling me it involved boat races in long boats that looked like dragons, I was once again left with the instructions to look it up myself and report to you guys.

She told me it was on 4 April, but as it turns out that is just her crude way of saying “fourth day of the fourth month,” which apparently isn’t even the case. HAHAHA. Apparently also known as the Double Fifth, the Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on, naturally, the lunar calendar. (Incidentally, the fourth of the fourth is a different holiday — a Taiwanese one — celebrating children. I’m sure you’ll hear about it next year.)

Anyway, after I clarified just now that the Duanwu Festival (as it’s known in Mandarin) is actually the Double Fifth, we realized it’s a bit premature to start yapping about it now, since it isn’t until 25 MAY. (“Oh, I can’t keep my Chinese holidays straight,” she says. “I’ve lived here too long.”)

Thanks, Mom. Now I can go get ready to go to my other job. 😉

Rest assured, though, that I’ll be back with timely Duanwu Festival information in May.

valentine’s day, eastern style

On Monday, my mom surprised me with a little tidbit from her past: Back when she was taking English classes, she wrote an essay on the difference between Chinese Valentine’s Day and Western Valentine’s Day. Immediately I requested to see it, which would make this job easier — no such luck, as the teacher had loved the manuscript enough to keep it to save as a sample for future classes. Besides, this class had to have been nearly thirty years ago.

I of course had no idea there was a “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” so I consulted my good pal Google and yielded convoluted results. Asking to confirm and clarify things with my parents proved useless, so I’m left here to explain with a superficial knowledge of this holiday. (Please don’t judge me. I’ll do better in the future.) If you’d like to read the exact article itself, please visit it on Wikipedia. The following is my paraphrased version/interpretation.

Of course, Chinese Valentine’s Day isn’t actually called Valentine’s Day; it’s called the Qixi Festival — it takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (naturally!), and in English can be referred to as “the Night of Skills,” “Festival to Plead for Skills,” or especially in Cantonese, “the Seventh Sister’s Birthday.” Incidentally, this year, the Qixi Festival takes place on 23 August. (It pretty much always falls in August.) Anyway, the background of this festival involves a tragic tale of literally star-crossed lovers that explains a yearly occurrence of the celebration, which began in the Han Dynasty, when people worshipped the stars.

In the late summer, there are two stars that shine high, presumably in the Chinese sky at that time: Altair and Vega. These stars are linked to the legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl. . . .

Legend has it that there was a cowherd named Niulang. And there was a “seventh daughter” of the Goddess of Heaven; her name was Zhinü, and she was especially skilled at weaving. One day, Zhinü escaped from the heavens to Earth in search of fun. Girl met boy, and they fell in love. They got married in secret, and even managed to have two kids before big mama found out.

The Goddess of Heaven, upon discovering her divine daughter had left the heavens to be with a mere mortal, was enraged. She immediately ordered Zhinü back to the skies to weave more clouds.

Niulang, of course, was rather distressed at his wife’s disappearance. His ox suddenly spoke to him, telling him if he killed it and wore its hide, he’d then be able to go into the heavens to find his wife.

Niulang did as the ox said, and carried his children up with him up to the heavens to search for Zhinü.

The Goddess of Heaven, it seems, was more savvy about the happenings on her own turf, and upon discovering Niulang’s presence there, she became enraged. (Talk about toxic mothers-in-law!) She pulled out her hairpin and scratched the heavens apart, forming the Milky Way between the two stars that represent the two lovers, Altair and Vega.

This rift in the stars thus divides the lovers forever. Except for the one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, when the Goddess of Heaven, touched by their love, takes a little pity on the separated lovers, her daughter Zhinü weaving away by herself, and poor Niulang still rearing their children, and allows them to unite (must be one steamy rendezvouz!).

Tradition calls for offerings to the cursed couple, Zhinü and Niulang, consisting of blossoms, fruit, tea, and face powder. People place garlands in their yards, and the single or newly married women of the house make the offerings. In this practice, the women are “bound in beauty” with Zhinü.

There’s more. Girls can test their embroidery prowess by tossing a sewing needle into a bowl of water — whether the needle floats (good) or sinks (bad) directly reflects the girl in question’s skills. And the day is also time for prayer: Recent brides pray for a quick pregnancy, and single girls ask for a good husband.

Apparently Western V-Day has been “imported” on its traditional “solar calendar” date 14 February, and Chinese men gift their sweethearts flowers, candy, or both. In Taiwan, though, men give presents to their ladies on Valentine’s, and women reciprocate on what’s called “White Day” (a month later on 14 March).

On that note, hope you all enjoyed your respective Valentine’s Days, whether it was lunar or solar!

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