Winter Solstice: Food of Life

Winter Solstice: Food of Life

Winter Solstice Festival 冬至 Dōngzhì

The Winter Solstice fell last month in China on the 22nd December 2015. The weather opposite of what we’re experiencing in Australia.

On this day of ‘the extreme of winter’, it is also widely speculated to be the shortest day in the year. In certain parts of China, Dōngzhì overshadows the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. Why is this so? Solstice marks the coldest of winter, and the Chinese celebrate what comes after .. Spring!

The start of Dōngzhì begins in the kitchen where tiny glutinous rice balls are concocted. My late Popo (maternal grandmother in Mandarin) would teach me and the younglings in creating the perfect ‘tangyuan’ (tang = soup and yuan = round) from glutinous rice flour. What makes the perfect tangyuan? Around 2cm wide in diameter of chewy balls, where each bite provides just the right amount of ‘bounce’ factor inside the mouth. Tangyuan tastes very similar to the Italian gnocchi, just sweet rather than savoury.

Home made Tangyuan, a typical Chinese food.

Family members would then sit at a round table and enjoy tangyuan as dessert after their stomachs are full from dinner. Each person receives at least one large tangyuan in addition to several small ones. The flour balls may be plain or stuffed with crushed peanuts or black sesame paste. The tangyuan is traditionally served in a bowl after being simmered in ginger infused sweet soup. Modern versions include multi-coloured rice balls decorated with tiny fragrant Osmanthus flowers.

This Dōngzhi activity symbolises family togetherness. Food brings people together.

If you think about it, not that dissimilar to some of Australian’s favourite gastronomical past-time of ‘throwing another shrimp on the barbie’, to munching some hot meat pies at a footy game, or even relishing a piece of tangy Vegemite on toast. And then of course, no outing is complete without some singing so often you can hear a special rendition of Waltzing Matilda and the classic ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham.

Vegemite on toast, a common feature in Australian breakfasts.

A special mention goes to Kylie Kwong, one of Australia’s prolific chefs. A restaurateur and TV personality, Kylie is a third-generation Chinese Australian and learned the fundamentals of Cantonese cooking from her mother’s side.

“I wanted my work and social life to reflect my Buddhism. Offering my customers healthy, life-giving, precious food is the best way for me to help them. Whether it’s my books, restaurant or TV show, I’ll always ask: Is this sustainable? Is this about uplifting and elevating the energy rather than depleting?”

As 2016 serves us a smorgasbord of infinite possibilities, and our days are peppered with summery outings, let us not forget how far we have come and the lessons learnt from yesteryear. In life, undoubtedly all of us will journey through our own periods of summer, autumn, winter and spring. Have comfort in knowing that no matter which season you may be going through, even the coldest of Winter must make way for sunny Spring…

The Confucius Institute at La Trobe University organises various Chinese cultural activities throughout the year. Check them out, subscribe to their newsletter, or follow them on Facebook.

Leading Image: Yegor Chekmarev, Unsplash.