In an era of light pollution, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how dark our winters must have seemed before the advent of electricity. That was especially true on the solstice, the shortest day of the year. What better occasion to gather with as much warmth and joy as possible?
Today, families in Hong Kong still get together for winter solstice, an event that used to surpass the lunar new year in importance. It is a time for togetherness and while some of the dishes eaten are common and also eaten at Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year, there are a few that are specific to the solstice, which this year falls on December 22.
Known as Dongzhi, or in Cantonese as dung1 zi3 (冬至, “winter’s arrival”), the day is marked across China. Siu Yan-ho, who specialises in food culture and Chinese language and literature at Baptist University, says it is a time when people look back over the year that has passed. It also marks the turning point when the days will start to get longer.
“The lunar new year is a time of looking forward as people celebrate the year coming up,” says Siu. Dongzhi, by contrast, is a period of reflection: a kind of Chinese Thanksgiving that took place during the winter harvest, when vegetables such as radishes were ready to eat. “Dongzhi was very important in ancient China as farming communities would gather and those working away from home would come to join their other family members as they looked back and shared their experiences of the past year.”
Dongzhi dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BC), when, according to Siu, farm animals would be sacrificed whole to the gods and ancestors. “The animals would be domestic farm animals – cows, sheep or pigs that would be sacrificed and given as offerings alongside jewellery.” The meat would then be eaten by the families. The jewellery was often jade, perhaps as a dagger again offered and then kept. The festival became official in the later Han Dynasty.
Like other festivals, the food at Dongzhi often plays on homonyms. The popular black moss and dried oysters (faat3 coi3 hou4 si2 髮菜蠔豉) is particularly auspicious – sounding similar to “prosperity and good things coming.” The dish also often comes with mushrooms. The black moss is a kind of algae that is reputed to have health benefits, but its popularity has been detrimental to the environment with increased desertification in the grasslands where it is harvested. More awareness of that impact means it is seen less in winter solstice dishes today.
In Hong Kong, employers often let their staff members leave early on solstice so that they can join their families for dinner, either at restaurants or at home. But it’s not a public holiday and what used to be a whole-day affair of preparation and togetherness is often now squashed into one evening.
Broadcaster Noreen Mir recalls big family gatherings for solstice, where sixteen family members would arrive at her grandparents’ 160-square-foot public housing flat. “My grandfather was a chef at a cha chaan teng, so he was a very good cook. We would have chicken, definitely a seafood dish, fish and shrimps, basically any food that has a double meaning name. Shrimp would be haa1 (蝦), so it sounds like haha, laughing. All the food would have something positive associated with it.”
A popular dish these days is shrimp with ketchup, (ke2 zap1 haa1 luk1 茄汁蝦碌), an interesting Cantonese culinary evolution. Mir’s grandfather, Ng Ming, would also cook crabs, heading off in the morning to the market to find the ingredients and bring them back to the Lai Tak Tsuen estate in Tai Hang. “He would put the live crabs in a red bowl on the balcony and leave it there until dinner time.”
Crabs are not particularly common for the winter solstice meal – but carp is. Stewed carp (man1 lei5 jyu2 燜鯉魚) is, alongside the shrimp and black moss, a key Dongzhi dish. Interestingly, considering the fast pace of life in Hong Kong, winter solstice dinner is often still a family affair with the evening meal cooked at home. But many also elect to eat at restaurants with eateries booked well in advance. Some menus still include the key dishes, while high end restaurants and hotels provide menus with pork, chicken, fish and often abalone, often with their own spin that departs from tradition. Poon choi, the Hakka basin meal, is often chosen by families as an easy dinner and several of the main chain restaurants offer poon choi to order in advance and take away.
Mir recalls playing badminton with her cousins and other children outside in the afternoon while her aunts and uncles would play mahjong and chat. Winter solstice at her grandparents was often celebrated the weekend before to allow daughters to go to their husbands’ families for the actual date of Dongzhi. “Because my grandma’s house is so small there was only one table that adults would sit at – and then we had another tiny table, a fold-out table and there weren’t even enough chairs. We would sit on biscuit tins. And it could be the big Garden biscuits or we would stack up a couple of Danish cookie tins and we would just sit on top of them and that was our chair!”
Tong Mei-oi will be celebrating Dongzhi with her daughter and son-in-law in Mei Foo this year. Born in 1932, she came from Tonggawan, these days a part of Zhuhai. Her favourite dishes for winter solstice are braised oyster, fried bean curd, roasted pork, chicken and lotus root. “Sometimes we make tang yuan (tong1 jyun4 湯圓), glutinous rice balls,” she says. “I like them savoury and others like them sweet. They are round like the moon and symbolise everyone coming together. It is the occasion for all the family to eat together.”
Tong Yuan can easily be bought frozen these days but Lai Chi Wo farmer Human Yip remembers how she and her brother would make the dumplings with glutinous rice flour that her mother would buy from the supermarket. The dumplings have a peanut and sesame filling, which can be bought separately today but would previously have been made at home. Tong yuan features in Chinese dessert shops and also on winter solstice menus in restaurants.
Mir’s grandparents originated from Toishan in Guangdong. “In Toishan and southern Guangdong they have the savoury version, which is cooked in a clear broth. You put some dried mushrooms, some radish, some fish meat in it, maybe a bit of pork if you want to and those round dumplings which are just made of rice flour. So it would be this clear savoury broth with these mouthwatering dumplings, with the radish, which absorbed the flavour from the soup, so you would bite into the radish and the soup would be inside. It was so delicious. So that was a version we had with my grandma a few times and I hope to continue.”
While Siu will be going with his parents to a restaurant this year, he’s nostalgic for the solstice of his youth. “My grandpa and my grandma were living in a village house in Yuen Long,” he says, which was a half-hour walk past fields of vegetables and past a river to get to their home, where 20 relatives would gather.
Mir will be celebrating solstice this year with her mother and three young children. She’s keen that they should learn the origins of this festival in a modern city where the agrarian roots of Dongzhi, the importance of bringing in the harvest, have little relevance, but the dumplings and key dishes remain.