Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. – Anthony Bourdain
One thing I miss about living in China is the immense variety of regional specialty foods. I am fortunate in that I’ve been able to enjoy some amazing Chinese foods over the years. Around the world, traditional foods are part of any holiday celebration. My wife is from the mountainous area in Guangxi Province, next to Guangdong Province. Xi means West and Dong means East, and Guang would more or less be what non-Chinese call Canton. And this area of China is famous for its incredible variety of food. Before my mother-in-law died, she told my wife to learn how to make traditional dishes because she was afraid the culinary knowledge would be lost to modernization. My wife listened to her, and learned to make many traditional foods. After my father-in-law passed away, my wife found a food treasure in the family home – an heirloom wooden pastry mold and her father’s hand carved celestial lion cookie designs.
One of the famous snacks in my wife’s hometown is a kind of “cookie” with sugar, pork fat, nuts and sesame seeds. Many are made by machines now, but handmade ones are still available. They come in a lucky eight-pack. Eight is lucky because 8 – Ba, sounds like Fa – luck, as in the traditional New Years blessing for FaCai – getting rich in a short time. Every year when my in-laws would go back to their hometown they would bring back packs of these cookies. They are great with coffee or tea. We would keep them in the fridge and enjoy them for a couple months. After finding the family heirloom mold, my wife taught herself to make another family favorite – what she translates as “sticky rice soft cookie/biscuit (British English for cookie 🙂
Traditional Chinese Lion Dance, at my in-law’s old home
My wife’s dad was an engineer. He could make just about anything. And the whole family is always trying to save money. During hard times, those traditional cookies were too expensive, so my father-in-law made a pastry mold and hand carved two designs. One was traditional characters for luck, and the other was a celestial lion. The celestial lion, often misidentified as a “Fu (lucky) Dog”, are guardians that protected palaces, temples and other buildings. Many Chinese foods have lucky, or mythological names. Eating certain foods bestows different “gifts”. So eating a lion cookie gave you a little of the lion’s celestial energy. When she was a little girl my wife and her siblings always preferred the rare lion cookies over any others. They said the cookies tasted best, and made them feel cool 🙂
Lion Dance Blessing in family village. Every village has a giant sacred tree that blesses the local people – you can see it is next to the butcher shop.
With my father-in-laws death last year, this was the first, Spring Festival – Chinese Lunar New Years without their parents for my wife, her sister and brothers. So Hong wanted to honor her family by sharing this delicious treat unique to only her family. Traditional recipes vary according to regions, and her family’s is unique to their hometown.
The dough is made with sticky rice. You can see my wife stuffing them in the short video. I spent many happy hours around the family table you see in the video. I have lots of fond memories of the foods we shared, and my mother-in-law passing me food with her chopsticks. My father-in-law laughed often as he told old stories. The two of them were inseparable for over five decades. I pray Hong and I will be so lucky. If we stuff our lives with sweetness, like these cookies, I think we will.
There are thousands of sticky, or glutinous, rice dishes across Asia. One of the most famous is Nian Gao (New Year’s “cake”). Japan’s famous mochi is similar. Rice is such a staple of Asian cuisine, there are dozens of varieties of rice for sale in supermarkets. If someone ever asks me what is my wife’s favorite Chinese food – zhōu, rice porridge (similar to congee). She has enjoyed zhou throughout her life. She taught me how to make it. Whenever she would travel, I would make a fresh pot for luck to welcome her back to me.
Although I don’t have a specific favorite Chinese food, I can definitely say my favorite dishes are the ones my wife makes. When she finally returns home, she has promised to bring her heirloom pastry mold with her. I look forward to sharing some lucky celestial lion cookies over a cup of her favorite tea.