When you think “Chinese food,” Formaggio Kitchen might not be the first place that comes to mind, but that’s a shame. While it’s true that cheese is still only just starting to make inroads into East Asian cuisines, here at the Cambridge shop we have more than enough products for a Chinese New Year feast.
Chinese New Year is celebrated in many Asian countries and goes by many names. The actual Chinese name (chunjie; 春节) simply means “Spring Festival,” the date on which the lunar calendar transitions from winter to spring, marked in particular by the flowering of Chinese plum trees. While the solar calendar New Year has gained modern significance in China, Spring Festival is still the bigger holiday. Like Christmas in America, the reason is equal parts tradition and family. Most significant is the fact that, by government mandate, everyone has at least seven days off for Spring Festival. For migrant workers, some college students, and other people working in major cities, this may be the only time of year they get to see their family.
As usual – nothing says family more than food! So, to celebrate, I’m honoring China’s luckiest number (eight) with eight great foods here at Formaggio Kitchen that make a new year’s meal complete. This year, Lunar New Year is January 31st, launching the year of the Horse. The full holiday season lasts another two weeks, until Lantern Festival (which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day this year — February 14), so there’s plenty of time to celebrate!
Admittedly I’m a bit biased (being a tea buyer), but no Chinese meal is complete without tea! Like an Italian table without wine, tea-free Chinese food is just wrong — especially if guests are involved. Direct from China, we have what I consider some of the most premier teas available in the U.S. from Tranquil Tuesdays. Hand selected from specific growers in five Chinese provinces, their six varieties of tea match the best of tea growing traditions with today’s global movement for sustainable, quality ingredients. A classic pairing with food (or before or after dinner) is green tea, like Tranquil Tuesday’s Organic Mao Jian; however, if you’re looking for a rare treat, I’d choose their Ancient Tree Raw Pu’er, which I consider the most unique tea in our shop. Unlike many of the more common pu’ers here in the U.S. this raw (“sheng”) pu’er is packaged before aging, giving it a lighter body and more delicate flavor. If you don’t brew it all right away, raw pu’ers like this one can also be aged at home, like a bottle of wine, into ripe (“shou”) pu’er over the course of a few years!
As much as I love tea, if there was one ingredient I had to choose to form the essence of my experience with Chinese food it would be black rice vinegar. Sold in-store as Chinkiang Vinegar (in Mandarin: zhenjiang xiangcu; 镇江香醋), this warmly flavored dark vinegar made from glutinous rice will edge any stir-fry into a true Chinese flavor-profile. Varying quantities of this vinegar, soy sauce, and oil make the base of almost every Chinese sauce, but I’ve found black rice vinegar hard to get outside Asian specialty stores here in the United States. Chinese five spice is a bit more common but equally important. Typically made with a blend of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper (also known as numbing spice) and fennel seeds, it’s a major staple of Chinese pantries, especially when seasoning meats.
Aside from these three essentials, the most important Spring Festival dish is dumplings. Of the people I spoke to about Spring Festival in China, nearly all of them spent the night leading into Chinese New Year making dumplings together as a family. These days families also spend that time gathered around the China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast of the Spring Festival Gala, a series of comedy, dance, drama, and musical performances counting down to midnight that easily rivals the American New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Northern Chinese cuisine usually pairs dumplings with more black rice vinegar than soy sauce, but if you’re making dumplings for Spring Festival I can’t think of a better pairing than Bluegrass Handcrafted Soy Sauce. Made in Kentucky with local soybeans and aged in bourbon barrels, this soy sauce has the most exquisitely rich flavor, perfect for finishing cooked dishes like dumplings. It’s also the only American-made artisanal soy sauce I’ve seen outside of Momofuku’s test kitchen! Popular dumpling fillings mix seasoned ground pork with scallions, chives or mushrooms, but any vegetables and ground meats will do. For vegetarians, scrambled eggs (without milk!) and chives or leeks are a classically delicious option.
With over 3,000 years of written history, Chinese culture is replete with layers of symbolism, and there are many New Year’s foods with special symbolic meaning. Some of the most important are citrus fruits, which Formaggio Kitchen is currently full of! Oranges and tangerines symbolize wealth because their Chinese names sound like the word for a huge sum of money (juzi; 巨资), while pomelo (my personal favorite) sounds like the word “to have” (you; 有), and the first part of the word kumquat is actually the Chinese word for gold (jin; 金). Most traditional Spring Festival desserts are sticky sweet, like niangao (黏糕), a sticky Chinese-style cake and homonym for the Chinese phrase “year higher” (年高). In keeping with tradition, I recommend picking up some of Cruzille’s Whole Candied Clementines, which are special, auspicious, and offer the promise of a truly sweet new year.
Now, what if you don’t really like Chinese food? You might think that means Chinese New Year isn’t for you, but you’d be wrong! I had a great time building my own Christmas traditions out of Chinese components when I lived in Northern China, and using your own favorite foods to share a celebration with one third of the global population can be just as fun as using traditional options. Since memories of food scarcity during the start of the 1960s are still a clear memory in the collective Chinese consciousness, meat holds extra importance for special occasions. Why not celebrate prosperity with some of our phenomenal charcuterie options, keeping special eyes open for Julie’s ginger scallion sausages in the freezer case (a European twist on the classic Chinese pork pairing). Long, uncut noodles are another common new year’s dish, symbolizing long life. I find spaghetti in particular to be about the same size and shape as a lot of Chinese noodles (think chow mein), and Poschiavo Spaghetti is a wonderfully festive choice.
You can also celebrate with anything red! According to legend, Spring Festival started as a defensive measure against an extremely dangerous creature called “Nian” who woke up from hibernation around this time of year ravenous for human flesh. People discovered that loud noises, fire crackers, and especially the color red would scare this creature away, and today the tradition lives on to keep communities safe. Presents, particularly symbolically lucky foods and new clothes, are an increasingly large part of Chinese New Year, but red envelopes (filled with money) have long been a traditional gift for children during Spring Festival to protect them from evil spirits like Nian.
If you only do one thing to celebrate Chinese New Year this year, it should be sharing something red with friends and family – be it a red box of cocoa, red grapes, or a good red wine. Doing so, you can wish each other a hearty 新年快乐 (happy new year! pronounced “shin-nian kwai-le”) and hope for good fortune with the more traditional greeting 恭喜发财 (pronounced “gong she fa tsai”)!
Happy Year of the Horse!
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.