06 MARS 2016 | SOPHIE RAOBEHARILALA
Last February has started with New Year celebrations in Asia as well where the Asian diaspora can be found around the world. Many Chinese parades with costumes and music, parties with great feasts were taking place. We are familiar with the recurrent indicators of Chinese celebrations such as red and gold colours decorating the cities, dragons marching down the streets surrounded with dancers. But if Chinese traditions are widely known for this occasion, curiosity pushes us to have a look at China’s neighbours. The influence of the Chinese culture has been large over the centuries and it is fair to say that similarities can be noticed in festivities amongst East Asian countries :
“ One measure of the range of a civilization is the spread of a common calendar. Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar, and North Africa and West Asia adopted the Islamic calendar, so that the religious holidays fell on the same days throughout the respective cultural spheres. Likewise in East Asia, calendars based on the same fundamental principles were adopted in Japan, China, Korea and northern Vietnam, thus defining a single sphere of civilization”.
We will therefore have a brief look at New Year celebrations in Japan and in Taiwan.
The celebration of the new year in Japan is called oshôgatsu starting from the 31st of December and lasting until the 3rd of January. Japanese culture is closely related to food. Festivities are always an occasion to prepare and eat a large variety of meals. Different ingredients are used according to different celebrations and occasions. As Michael Ashkenazi states,
“Virtually all of the main national holidays are marked by special foods. Of them all, the most sumptuous are the special foods of the New Year. Other holidays are also celebrated with colorful and unusual foods, each of which has its own symbolic meaning”.
Like in many religions in Asia, honoring deities starts with offerings, most of them being money and food such as uncooked rice. This tradition applies to shrines in Japan : when an offering is made, a small cup of saké is received in return as good luck for the start of the new year.
Since this part of the year is hosting the most important celebration of all, the feast is prepared days if not weeks in advance. Therefore it is not unusual to find cold dishes on the table. One exception remains : ozōni, a soup prepared specifically for the occasion, which brings strength.
If ingredients are thoroughly selected according to their symbolic and the seasons, their colours also have a key role:
“Foods colored red, white or gold are preferred : succulent taï fish, mounds of red-and-white- rice cakes and golden ginko nuts, sometimes stung on pine needles”.
The Japanese are very well known for being able to create harmony. It is without any surprise that the container is as thought-through than the contents. Indeed the most exquisite and expensive china is used in this occasion together with red lacquer bowls, and baskets. Furthermore, the tradition sees the food packed in a lacquered box with three trays called jûbako decorated with an indication of the season. The first tray is usually filled with seasonal foods such as black beans (symbol of health) boiled in syrup (sweet being the symbol of an easy year, as are sweet potato and sweet chestnuts), kazunoko (symbol of fecundity). The second tray contains seafood and sansai (wild vegetables), marinated octopus, squid. The third tray contains vegetables seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, bringing back the sweetness and again an easy year.
If the feast is in the plate and on the table, it also is in the house with decorations made of rice and other ingredients.
“The New Year is the time to consume special foods (oseichi), to decorate the entrance of houses with cut green bamboo poles wrapped in straw rope and decorated with pine branches and oranges (kado matsu), […]. The green of the pines and bamboo represents the family’s hopes for renewal; the straw rope, (…) circumscribes the end of the year; and the many seeds of the Japanese oranges (daidai) represents growth and fertility as does the daidai, a pun on “many generations”.”
Another decoration is Mochi cake. Made of mochi-gome (glutinous rice), it symbolises purity. Mochi cake shaped in a circle can be found on shrines or inside the home to celebrate a fresh start for a new year.
“These cakes are called kagami mochi and are named after the mirror (kagami), which is one of the sacred treasures of Japan, the other two being the sword and the jewel. The rice cake is the essence of sacred rice itself, its spirit or soul”.
The Japanese usually celebrate New Year’s Eve with family and the first day of the year with friends.
Taïwan follows the Chinese New Year festivities religiously. Like in Japan, preparations have started weeks before the celebration period. This is a yearly opportunity for the Taiwanese to get the family together and enjoy a multi-generation moment.
Taiwanese traditions related to food do not only resume to a great meal and decorations, it has a major role in beliefs and religion. Sugar is used as a link between the people and deities. Indeed celebrations begin on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month as it is believed that on this day various gods ascend to heaven to pay their respects and report on the family to the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist deity. Tradition is to smear malt sugar on the lips of the Kitchen God to ensure that he either submits a favorable report to the Jade Emperor or keeps silent.
The large choice of dishes during the festivities have been selected wisely according to their symbolic and similarities in sound with words of good luck. For instance, fish (yu) symbolises money, fish balls (yu wan) and meat balls (rou wan) symbolise reunion, garlic chives (jiu cai) for everlasting, turnips (cai tou) represent good omens, shoe-shaped gold dumplings (shui jiao) are bringing money. The sea cucumber also carries an auspicious meaning, for it is pronounced haishen, the shen sounding like sheng or “give birth”. The word chicken is a homonym for jia or family therefore it is common to find a whole chicken on the table as a symbol of starting a family, thus asking for blessing and prosperity in the year just arriving. Lucky refreshments are also prepared at this time, such as glutinous rice flour pudding (niangao), which is said to make people “advance toward higher positions and prosperity step by step”. When it comes to having the meal, ingredients are stir-fried together, “including vermicelli and bean sprouts, coriander leaves, celery, Chinese cabbage, and other assorted vegetables chopped into thin slices. Soy sauce and sesame oil may be added when this dish serves as a cold dish”. For dessert we can notice again the importance of rice in the Asian culture with a selection of bu bu gao deng or “step by step ever higher” desserts. Brown-sugar New Year sticky-rice cakes or red-bean New Year sticky-rice cakes called “year cakes” or niangao symbolise an ever higher year. The Taiwanese also eat fagao, a steamed sponge cake which refers to the expression yilu fa meaning “prosperous all the way.” As for perfect happiness, it can be found in sweet glutinous rice balls and deep fried taro-and-jujube balls!
This short trip around festive Japan and Taiwan allowed us to notice the importance of the role of food in Asian cultures. Food offerings are made to shrines, home altars and families, key ingredients and dishes are linked to deities and beliefs, and finally colour codes are recurrent around the Eastern part of the continent. The importance of rice and food in general stresses the fact that food is used as a mean to convey messages with deities, bringing to it an entire new function than just of nourishing people. As for the influence of Chinese culture, not only has it spread if we take a close look to similarities in traditions and symbolism, but it also carried on with a few twists depending on the country’s food habits.
1. Michael Ashkenazi, Food culture in Japan, CT : Greenwood Press, 2003.
4. Naomichi Ishige, The history and culture of Japanese food, London : Kegan Paul 2001.
5. Donald Richie, A taste of Japan : food fact and fable : what people eat : customs and etiquette. Tokyo / New York : Kodansha International, 1985.
6. Department of Information Technology, Taipei City Government, The Wonderful Auspicious Food Tastes of the Lunar New Year : [http://english.gov.taipei/ct.asp?xItem=1101608&ctNode=49659&mp=100002], (consulted on 27/02/2016)