Monday, January 20, 2020

China: Getting Ready for the Year of the Rat (Part 1)

If you are born in the year of the rat, Chinese tradition says you will be quick-witted, smart, and frugal. 

Happy Year of the Rat! Red envelopes on this tree called "hungbau." They are delivered by family and friends for their loved ones. 
Over here in Mainland China, everyone is preparing for the next two weeks of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival as it is called in China (not sure why because there is ice floating down the rivers).  Chinese New Year officially begins on January 25 this year and lasts until February 8, which is the day of the Lantern Festival. For one week, none of the stores are open so crowds are bustling everywhere to buy their friends and family gifts. Many people are carrying home big bags of food for their New Year feasts. New clothes are bought. People clean their houses to sweep away ill-fortune and make way for coming luck. (I invited a Chinese friend to come today and she offered to "house-clean." I guess she wants to let the luck flow this year for me with a cleaner house. I did think it was quite tidy the last time she came. Ha!). Everyone is preparing their homes for the new year.

Red lights and lanterns adorn many shops, apartment buildings, schools, and businesses. Schools are closed for two-four weeks for this auspicious holiday that enters in the new year of the Zodiac sign of the Rat. The streets have flowing banners, and the doors and windows in houses have red paper-cut signs that say Blessings, Health, Longevity. There is an exhilarating excitement in the air wherever you go.

Many people travel to their province or village to be with families at this time. One friend with a few tears said to me, "Everyone works hard all year long so they can be with their family at this time. On the night before New Year's, this year on January 24, will be"the reunion night" when families come together all over China. I have been told not to travel around China at this time to avoid the crowds. Planes, trains, and coaches were booked long ago. Ancestors are remembered, and red envelopes containing money are given to family members--especially children. There will be fireworks, gatherings, activities and all kinds of food to eat and gifts to give. But here are some suggestions or even warnings before you choose your gifts to give your host for Chinese New Year:

1) Don't give knives or other sharp objects like scissors because that would mean you want "to cut" off the relationship with them.
2) Don't give anything with a number four, even four apples because the Chinese will do anything to avoid the number four. The sounds of the words death and the number four are similar. Everything associated with the number four is unlucky. (There is often not a number four on elevators, and no one wants to live on the fourth floor in apartment buildings).
3) Don't give someone a new Apple watch or a clock because that would mean their time on earth is coming to a close and death is imminent. It means you are running out of time.
4) Don't give cut flowers because that is for funerals, especially white flowers since the color white is associated with death.
5) Don't give shoes because the word's shoes and bad luck sound the same. Shoes are something you step on so definitely avoid giving shoes!
6) Don't give pears (another fruit is fine). It is taboo since the word pear and the word "leaving" sound the same.
7) Don't give a mirror because it could attract terrible ghosts to your life, and besides it could possibly break!

Yesterday we went to a huge convention center in Tianjin where people from all over China were there to sell delicacies for the Chinese New Year tables. Honestly, I have never seen the abundance of samplings that were available yesterday. If you fancy eating jellyfish in your salad or expensive sea cucumbers or sheep's head, it was there for you. Here is a smorgasbord of pictures that shows how people are preparing over here:

Everyone decorates their windows, and especially doors with red banners and paper-cuts.

A darling little girl choosing a lantern for her home.

Picking some for our door
In front of an international school here in Tianjin

Dried shrimp anyone?

Dried dates are popular here.

Sheep's head for a soup?

Dried mushroom for soups. I bought some and made a delicious soup today.

Joseph just found the best oranges of his life he said. 

Making music with metal drums

Salmon from the seafood section

These are wonderful big crackers, sprinkled with sesame seeds. 

Candy made with different kids of camel and sheep milk. 

I love the way fruit and vegetable vendors take such great pride in their produce.

Joseph trying some tofu noodles.
The Chinese love nuts and seeds in every variety.
Fresh dates--sometimes people like them dried, fried, and fresh. They are a snack you see everywhere.
A honey vendor

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Merry Christmas again--this time on January 7!

A Ukrainian feast in Doha

Lucy and Ibrahim dressed up in Ukrainian attire on Christmas Eve.... 

Much of the world is getting back to work, school and taking down the Christmas decorations right now. But today is a special day, Christmas Day, in other parts of the world. Last year on this day I celebrated with Ukrainian friends in Doha, Qatar on their Christmas Day on January 7, and we plan on doing it again tonight--a world away in the United States. Much of the world celebrates the Gregorian calendar that confirms Christmas is on December 25. But Orthodox and East Orthodox celebrate the Julian calendar--which means Christmas falls on January 7. These are the countries that typically celebrate it in January: Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine.

Music and caroling is a a big part of the Ukrainian Christmas

In the countries where Christmas is on January 7, many people have fasted for 40 days from meat. They bring to their Christmas Eve table 12 dishes that represent each of the 12 apostles--typically with no meat--waiting for the Christmas Day feast to have meat. It is called the Fast of Philip. These are some of the dishes they have in Ukraine: Grain pudding made with wheat berries or barly, braided breads, often red borscht, meatless cabbage rolls bean dishes, mushroom dishes, and poppyseed cake.

Poppyseed roll
  • 3/4 cup milk, warmed.
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast.
  • 1/3 cup sugar.
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
  • 1 tsp. salt.
  • 1 large egg.
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted.
  • 1 tsp. vanilla.
  • Grated zest of a lemon (optional).
Poppyseed filling:
  • 1/2 cup poppyseed.
  • 1/3 cup ground almonds or ground/finely chopped walnuts.
  • 1/2 can sweetened condensed milk.
  • 1/4 cup sugar.
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten, for brushing.
To make the dough, put the warm milk in a large bowl (the bowl of your stand mixer, if you have one) and sprinkle with the yeast and a pinch of the sugar. Let stand for five minutes, or until it gets foamy. (If it doesn't, you may need fresh yeast.)
Add the rest of the sugar along with the flour, salt, egg, butter, vanilla and lemon zest, if you're using it.
Stir until the dough comes together and is smooth and sticky. Cover and let rest for an hour or so. Meanwhile, make the filling: if you like, grind the poppyseed in a spice grinder or using the finest setting of a food mill.
Transfer to a bowl and stir in the ground almonds, sweetened condensed milk and sugar. (Some like to boil their poppy seeds to soften them first. To do this, cover with water in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, remove from the heat and let sit for 20 minutes or so, then strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve).
Divide the dough in half and roll each into a large oval that's about 8x12-inches. Spread each with half the poppyseed filling, leaving about an inch gap around the edges.
Roll each up loosely, starting from a long side, and place seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover and let rest for another hour while you preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Brush the loaves with beaten egg. (I dipped my fork into the remaining sweetened condensed milk before stirring up the egg, to give it a little extra sweetness, which will create a darker, glossier crust). Bake for 25-30 minutes, until deep golden. Let cool slightly before slicing on a slight diagonal.
Makes 2 loaves, serves about 12.
The barley salad that represents a hopeful abundant harvest and gratitude for the past harvest.

Some of the delectable food--beetroot salad, wheat/barley salad, cabbage roll, lentil salad, and of course the borscht.

So if you have a desire to leave the decorations a little longer, you can still celebrate like us tonight for Christmas. In my opinion, the dark winter nights in January are perfect for some more gatherings with light, food, and music to share....

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Sweden (Part 3): Sweden: Becoming a Child again at Christmas

      "We are better throughout the year for having in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime."  --Laura Ingalls Wilder

    "Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it's Christmas.   --Dale Evans

I am an unabashed lover of Christmas--the traditions, music, magic in children's eyes, sparkly lights, and coziness around a candle or firelight. Going to Sweden last year near Christmas was like a little child getting to go to the North Pole to see Santa. It seems all the splendor of Christmastime was months in the planning in Sweden--the beauty of the lights, music, traditions, food, and snowy walks by a lake. The child in me was filled every moment--being wide-eyed and anticipating every new tradition. In the last year, I have closed my eyes a few times to remember the special winter wonderland walks. 

I think it is good every Christmas to reflect on the traditions we want to give. Are they softening our hearts to become more like a child? Are we serving with no strings attached? Do we occasionally leave the coziness of electric lights and go outside to surround ourselves with the stars?

What makes you happy at Christmas? Here are some of the things the Swedes do:

  •                           Gathering Light

Being outside on the streets, markets, walking around the lake is the way the Swedes live. Snowstorms were meant to enjoy.

First of all, everywhere there is light gathered in--candles, stars in windows. No matter if there is not much light. Homes are lit up, and almost every house has windows with starts. Talk about being star-struck!

If there is not a star, a candle lights the way.... Seriously, candles are everywhere.... even on the streets, in the stores. On Christmas Eve, candles are everywhere

Lanterns outside under frosty-tipped trees. Christmas trees have to be real and as big as can be accommodated. Swedes usually collect their tree on the day before Christmas Eve. It is a serious matter. Family decorations are important of course, but soft white lights are greatly preferred, not colored ones.

Soft lights and boughs of real fir trees everywhere. 

The most beautiful and enticing windows where the lights almost gesture you to come inside....

An entire nation watching the same show together

Every morning during the advent since 1960, everyone gathers around to watch the Julkalender--an ongoing story that ends  on Christmas Eve. I am watching it here in Stockholm at 7 am and it goes for half an hour. All the kids wake up to watch the the advent story (a different one each year) before school. On Christmas Eve day, the entire country watches Donald Duck together at 3 pm. There is a lot of comraderie in the country by knowing everyone is watching the same thing together. They all say, "I know it sounds strange, but that is what we all do."

Go outside!

I love this picture along the lake. There must have been 100 little boats on the edge of the lake, taking a rest from the summer swims. I love the way the Swedes take in every moment outside since there is so little winter light. There is a proud Viking spirit of strength and endurance that still lives on.... Soon this lake will be frozen enough for people to come and skate on. Hot chocolate is sold along the edge of the lake for skaters and walks who are passing by. Ice fishing and even jumping into icy waters brings lots of enthusiasts. 
There is a beautiful lake to the right. Kids run outside--just this time in different clothes. The Swedes say it is not about the weather, just about what clothes you wear.

Sunrise by the lake at about 9

Sharing winter moments outside together with loved ones

A winter land of white against Elias's red Santa suit

                The Julbord--A Scandinavian feast or
                banquet--like a smorgasbord

An entire blog could be written about the julbord alone; there are five courses! 1) pickled herring 2) Other fish 3) Cold meats, pates, and terrines 4) Hot food, and 5) Desserts There are tables upon tables of food--not just ordinary food, but of festive delicacies--both cold and hot dishes. It is customary to begin with the cold fishes dishes, which are various forms of herring, salmon, and eel, smoked and pickled fish, baked ham, Swedish meatballs, reindeer, pates, wild duck and boar, glazed ribs, boiled potatoes, cheeses, salad, relishes, beetroot, and different cabbages, snd then desserts. 

Most Swedes go out to restaurants for the julbords--with family and then with coworkers. 

A julbord offering....

A feast never to be forgotten. 
Some special drinks and foods of the season:

Julmust is a non-alcoholic drink made from water, sugar, hops, malt, and spices. Think of a really, really sweet root beer
This was my favorite Christmas dessert called Risgrynsgrot (rice pudding or sometimes called rice porridge) This tradition started in 1328. It is normally served with a dusting of cinnamon with an almond hidden in the pudding. Whoever gets the almond will get married soon (or maybe fall in love) or as to compose thanks in rhyme.  Recipe for Swedish Rice Pudding or Porridge
Glogg, mulled juice or wine with almonds and raisons in it. I just drink the juice one. Gingersnap cookies (called peppakakor) are usually accompanied with the glogg  Recipe for Swedish gingersnaps

Being with Loved Ones
My cousin are here at the local Home Depot store and they have glogg, almonds and gingersnaps out for the customers. Christmas is everywhere in Sweden!!!!
Making our own gingerbread houses--another family tradition....

Special Decorations

Gnomes are everywhere in Sweden....

The decorated windows could keep me entertained for hours

Going to church

Enjoying the peace of the Prince of Peace who we celebrate..... One of my favorite Swedish Christmas songs

The lights and music of Santa Lucia are hauntingly beautiful. I have to admit I had some tears listening to it. 

Sharing Ourselves
Sharing ourselves with loved ones and strangers.... Elias, my son with autism, who is practicing some Swedish words on train in Stockholm. This 82 year old woman that favored us with stories in perfect English of World War2 memories.

Some other ideas from the Swedes: