Today is the first day of Chinese New Year, and for 2016, it is the Year of the Monkey! If you are not familiar with this traditional celebratory event, it happens every year around February, the specific date changes according to the lunar calendar. For Chinese people around the world, this day marks the official beginning of the year. If you asked my mom, she would say something like “January 1st? Nah…we care about this new year, which is the REAL new year.” Every 12 years, the zodiac animals cycle through, and this year happens to be Year of the Monkey.
How do we celebrate Chinese New Year, you might ask? Well, the answer goes back to food mostly. In China, most young people in their 20s or 30s leave their hometown (if they are not from a metropolitan area) and head to cities like Beijing and Shanghai for work all year long. By the way, 80% of the population in Beijing is made up of these migrant laborers who are not from the city, and that leads to a variety of urbanization problems and disparity in healthcare and education for their children. Anyhow, the only chance that these migrant laborers visit home is Chinese New Year, when they are granted a 2 week holiday break. So starting two weeks prior to Chinese New Year holidays, train stations around Beijing can be seen crowded with thousands of migrant workers trying to purchase train tickets back home. Ticket selling websites online is often fraught with unnecessarily burdensome procedures when someone tries to purchase a ticket. For instance, when you hit the checkout button, a popup window will ask you to verify your human identity by asking all sorts of ridiculous questions, like which celebrity is married to who, who is the host of which show, etc. It makes online purchase an almost impossible and very frustrating experience. Anyhow, I digress.
So when migrant laborers head home for Chinese New Year, it’s a rare occasion when all relatives and cousins can gather under one roof. What do they do when you have 10 people in a house? They eat. Starting the night before CNY, families gather around to make dumplings by hand. Someone will make the dough, someone will make the skin, someone will make the filling (pork, cabbage, shrimp or chives), and yet an army of people will wrap the dumplings. Then for dinner, dumplings get served as the centerpiece dish, symbolizing unity and happiness as a family in the new year to come. Of course, there are a huge variety of other dishes on the CNY eve dinner menu, such as braised pork belly, shumai, sweet and sour whole fish, stirfried pea tips, Peking duck, the list is endless. I recommend this list of recipes from Woks of Life (also one of my favorite blogs on authentic Cantonese food) for a comprehensive list. Chinese New Year celebration goes on for 15 days, where each day has a specific traditional task for people to carry out. For instance, one day you have to clean and organize your house, another day you should visit distant relatives, another day you eat spring rolls, etc. The 15-day saga ends with Lantern Festival, where you eat glutinous rice balls with black sesame filling. You get the idea, the entire celebration centers on food.
Of course, there are many traditional Chinese desserts that get served during the 15 day long extravaganza, including this walnut sandies cookie. It’s one of the more traditional desserts that has been around since the Qing dynasty. It does not use any butter (because there was no butter during the Qing dynasty) and only uses vegetable oil for the fatty content. When made well, it’s crispy yet melts in your mouth, it’s fragrant but not overpowering. It’s a reminder of my childhood. And now I am sharing the hundred year of recipe with you all! Happy CNYing!
- flour, 3/4 cups
- 1 whole egg
- white sugar, 1/3 cup
- canola oil or any other type of vegetable-based oil, 1/2 cup
- baking soda, 1/2 tbsp
- walnut pieces, 1 handful
- black sesame seeds for sprinkling
In a mixing bowl, mix together oil, sugar and one egg until evenly mixed.
In a separate mixing bowl, add flour and baking soda. Mix well. Fold the dry flour mixture into the wet ingredients and blend well. Be careful not to over mix.
Add broken walnut pieces and mix roughly into dough. Form round 2 inch balls of dough with your hand and flatten them into rounds on a foil-lined baking tray. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
Preheat oven to 395F, bake for 15 minutes or until the edges start to turn golden brown. Cool off and enjoy for up to 1 week!