While chocolate is the traditional food of love on Valentine's Day, this year you might want to whisper sweet nothings to your other half over yuanxiao, the sweetened rice dumplings traditionally eaten on the Lantern Festival.
With both festivals falling on Feb 14 this year, the date is an unusually auspicious one - not just for young love but also for the emergence of one aspect of China's ancient culture into the modern world.
Just as Western influences can be tasted in the modern mooncake, the traditional Chinese delicacy eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, chocolate and yuanxiao are one of many new pairings for the Lantern Festival.
Chocolate is widely regarded as a relatively recent introduction to China. It was first recorded as entering the country in 1705, when Pope Clement XI dispatched envoys to present 150 chocolates to Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
However, until the late 1980s when multinational manufacturers like Mars, Hershey and Cadbury entered the market, most of the "chocolate" eaten in China was made with cocoa butter substitutes, creating nothing more than a sweet, brown substance.
Helped by slick and widespread marketing campaigns, real chocolate has now become part of the culture and the diet.
Yuanxiao, commonly called tang - yuan in southern China, has evolved over centuries and continues to adapt to modern tastes with new ingredients.
Made with rice flour and sweet fillings, they symbolize family gatherings and happiness and are easy to cook: simply put them in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes and eat as a dessert.
The dumplings are made with varied techniques and have different characteristics in northern and southern China. Yuanxiao is chewier, while tangyuan is tender and melts in the mouth.
In the south, the process is similar to the making of jiaozi. The rice flour is mixed with water to make a dough and the filling is inserted inside. They are then rolled into a ball shape by hand. In the north, the filling is pressed into a hard core then rolled in a basket containing dry rice flour, allowing the flour to stick to the filling. The dumpling grows like a snowball as it is rolled.
According to folklore expert You Guoqing, though most Chinese families still eat the dumplings on the Lantern Festival, homemade dumplings have become rarer. Frozen dumplings sold in supermarkets are gaining popularity for their variety of fillings and convenience, as many people have less time to make them.
Dao Xiang Cun is a time-honored brand in Beijing renowned for traditional Chinese desserts. The company has been making yuanxiao for more than a century. With the approach of the Lantern Festival, a long line forms outside its shop, with customers buying yuan-xiao not only for themselves but also for relatives, friends and loved ones.
Recently this treat has been enriched by creative new fillings, such as strawberry. Labeled as low-calorie and healthy compared with the traditional black sesame and peanut fillings, they are popular among young people.
With the Lantern Festival and Valentine's Day both falling on Friday, yuan-xiao with chocolate or rose fillings can also be found. A manager surnamed Li at Huguo Temple Snacks shop says yuanxiao with chocolate and rose fillings comprise almost half of the 150 kilograms sold there every day.
(China Daily 02/13/2014 page22)