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Sweet tradition

Updated: 2015-03-03 06:56
By Mike Peters/Liu Zhihua (China Daily)

Tiny tangyuan made from sticky rice bring this week's Lantern Festival to life in the hands of a veteran chef from Chongqing, Mike Peters and Liu Zhihua report.

Lu Biqun remembers the time when scoops of lard and sugar were not available for everyday cooking.

In hard times a generation ago, says the now 58-year-old executive chef at Beijing's Chongqing Hotel, having those simple ingredients available to make snack dumplings called tangyuan made celebration of the Lantern Festival really special.

In Lu's hands, the dumplings still have their old sweet magic. As this year's March 5 observation of the festival approaches, the chef's fingers flutter lightning-fast as she shapes the sticky-rice dough around the handmade black-sesame filling. Each bit of dough becomes a marble-sized ball, ready to drop into boiling water. Each seems perfectly round and identical to its siblings on the plate.

The secret, she says, is soaking the sticky rice for a long time - nearly a month - as she learned to do in her family's restaurant kitchen as a teenager in Chongqing. "That is a technique and tradition of southern China," she says, "and it brings out more of the sugar in the rice." In the north, the rice is simply ground to flour without soaking, but the resulting dough is not as smooth, tender or sweet, she insists.

Working in the hotel that's run by the Chongqing municipality, Lu is dedicated to the authenticity of her food. A working chef since the age of 19, she learned the art of making the city's famous snacks from her father, who once had the honor of hosting China's first premier. "He was a great chef - he served Zhou Enlai in 1958, but of course they vetted him and the restaurant very carefully before that could happen," Lu recalls. The restaurant was famous for serving "the best chickens and snakes", she says, as well as making a special type of baijiu, or Chinese white liquor. But during the political instability of the late 1950s, she says, the former private business was turned over to the government. Though the restaurant became State-owned, the family continued to run the kitchen, turning out tangyuan and the many other snacks that Chongqing has made its own in the pantheon of Chinese cuisine.

While tangyuan is a traditional snack for the Lantern Festival, served in a bowl of sweet broth, the dumplings can appear at other celebrations, as a dessert on a wedding day, at the winter solstice festival and at family reunions - because the word tangyuan is a homophone for "union". That's the aura the dumplings bring this week - they are a talisman to make sure that "everything goes well for the family in the year ahead" at the end of the Spring Festival period that brings them all together. She remembers being given tangyuan as a child at this time of year as an omen of success, and it's still a tradition for eager Chinese youngsters today.

In her restaurant kitchen in Beijing, even the familiar steamed buns known as baozi become standouts in her experienced hands.

Her dough seems softer than what you typically find in the north. But what really sets Chongqing baozi apart, she says, is the filling. In Beijing, cooks will usually take fresh raw pork, season it and then stuff it into the dough for steaming. In Chongqing, the filling is fried first with salt and ginger, bringing out an extra dimension of flavor.

Other snacks she's serving up this week: sausages stuffed with seasoned pork, a fine delicate soup studded with pork chunks and chickpeas, fried-rice squares with pork seasoning and a spicy pickle made from a vegetable stalk indigenous to Sichuan. There is also "Chongqing bacon" - pig intestine stuffed with seasoned beef and boiled - and baifungao, a white honey confection of regular rice flour that's first steamed and then fried, which produces a cake-like consistency that is much healthier than a baked cake because it's all natural and doesn't require the oil that a baked cake does.

Making food healthy is just as important as making it delicious, she says with all the resolution needed to start a new year.

Contact the writers at liuzhihua@chinadaily.com.cn and michaelpeters@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 03/03/2015 page24)