Blog: Celebrating Chinese New Year in South Africa

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Chinese New Year 2014 welcomes in the Year of the Horse.

Popular local food-blogger Ming-Cheau Lin shares some of her experiences of celebrating Chinese New Year with her family on eNCA.com.

BLOEMFONTEIN - Growing up in South Africa, it has always been difficult to truly enjoy the entirety of this two-week celebration.

Chinese New Year is an elaborate and festive holiday in Asia but here we hold rather modest celebrations.

Ever since I left school I haven’t been able to celebrate with my whole family but in 2014, the Year of the Horse, all three kids (my sister Jasmine, my brother Frank and I) were able to go back to Bloemfontein to celebrate this festive occasion with our parents and our dog Pico.

My folks were ecstatic to have the whole family together, so as you can imagine, there was plenty of traditional food. And of course the traditional scented red envelopes, packed with money from the older generation.

Chinese New Year Dishes

Here are some of the dishes I had the luxury to enjoy over the Chinese New Year:

Stir-Fried Rice Noodles

One of my absolute favourite dishes my Mama makes. This time around my Mama used grated pumpkin, sliced shiitake mushrooms, pork strips and dried shrimp. It’s often eaten at Chinese New Year celebrations owing to the length of the noodles, symbolising longevity.

Buddha Jumps over the Wall

Traditionally this dish contained shark fin and abalone, but we had a simpler version. Our dish included quail eggs, Chinese cabbage, taro, pork tendon and shiitake mushrooms.

My Papa shared the story behind this dish with me: A scholar was travelling with a group by foot and preserved his food, which was high in protein and calcium, in a clay jar. Every time he had a meal, he’d heat up the contents in the jar over an open fire.

Once, they stopped to rest and the scholar warmed his clay pot. The fragrant scent of the meal travelled to a nearby Buddhist monastery and overwhelmed one of the meditating monks. The vegetarian monk was so tempted that he jumped over the wall.

Sweet Nian Gao (Rice Cakes)

The Chinese words "Nian Gao" directly translated means "Year Tall" – which symbolises having a better year than the previous one. This tasty morsel is made out of glutinous rice, which is gluten-free, until you add the flour and egg batter. The rice cake is often bought in a cake shape, then you cut it up so that you end up with thin slices to dip and fry.

The story of Chinese New Year

Now centuries old, the story of the origins of the Chinese New Year vary, but the core denominator of the legend includes a mythical monster, terrible and feared by all the villagers.

This monster had the head of a proud lion, the body of a strong ox and resided in the ocean. The monster’s name was Nian (?) and it preyed on the locals.

On New Year’s Eve Nian would visit the land to prey on the locals, nearby animals and cause destruction and havoc in the villages.

The story also mentions an old man who advised the villagers to bring out and play their drums and set off firecrackers to scare away the monster.

He also told them that Nian feared the colour red, so the villagers hung up red scrolls, paper cut-outs and lanterns to ward it off. Nian was conquered and on the anniversary of this date the villagers always celebrated the passing of Nian.

The word Nian (?) means "year" in Chinese, and it’s also synonymous with the New Year’s festivities.