It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.
This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.
I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.
Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December. She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.
We got together in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.
At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.
It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.
My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below – click on them to see the full image.
By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe – Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise – as well as my two favourite Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings – vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.
Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.
We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.
Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.
The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website.
Chun jie kuai le – happy Spring Festival.
Ma dao chong dong – wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.
Regular readers will recall that I came back from a visit to my son Shane and his wife Shan in China late last July brimful of enthusiasm for learning how to cook authentic Chinese food but with very little idea where to start. Shortly afterwards Kevin Hui, owner of the China Sichuan, Sandyford Dublin invited me inside his kitchen where I got to see his chefs in action. You can read about that day here. I got lots of inspiration from the experience and as a result this blog began to gain momentum. Since then I’ve been encouraging Kevin to put on a cooking demo for a wider audience of food bloggers and home chefs so they too could share the experience of seeing Chinese chefs wield a cleaver and wok and work magic with dough for dumplings.
The opportunity came with a special event in Cooks Academy last Sunday to round off the Taste of China part of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival. Before an audience of around 30 people, head chef Ricky and his assistant Andrew demonstrated how to prepare the famous Sichuan dish “Fish Fragrant” Pork. Then we all did our best to replicate the dish under the watchful eyes of Michelin-star chef Colin O’Daly, Ciaran from Cooks Academy and the chefs from China Sichuan.
Later Ricky showed us how to make Waltip “stick to the pot” dumplings. As the afternoon wore on, and we wrestled with what by then resembled play dough, in an attempt to recreate Ricky’s delicate and perfectly-formed jiaozi, the mood descended into giddy good humour. Efforts were compared, the thickness of the pastry was closely examined, rueful looks were exchanged over misshapen dumplings and there were some surprisingly expert looking results too. Joanne Cronin of Stitch and Bear earned herself a Cooks Academy Certificate and a goodie bag from Asia Market for the best looking dumplings of the day.
It was all great fun but we learned a lot too and got many tips and insights from our skilled, professional chefs. More than anything the afternoon reminded me of the Chinese belief that food is for sharing, in the making of it and the eating of it. Our cheerful celebration of the shared pleasure of Chinese food was a fitting end to this year’s Spring Festival. Thank you China Sichuan, Dublin Chinese New Year Festival and Cooks Academy for making it possible.
These photos of the afternoon, taken by my friend Solange Daini, capture the mood of the day better than words can. Thank you Solange!
PS: You can see all 21 recipes from Taste of China, including the recipes from last Sunday on the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website here.
There is such a thing as grace.
This evening, some 40 of my mother in law Alice O’Neill’s immediate family gathered in the room where she held court for so many years to mark 4 weeks from her passing with a “Month’s Mind” Mass celebrated by her and our good friend Fr. Malcolm. We ranged in age from her youngest great grand-child barely 1 to nearly 76 years of age. We piled into that small space grabbing slots on stools or cushions and, whether you had a religious bone in your body or not, you could not fail to be moved by the quiet peace that descended on the room as we followed an age old ritual. Her presence cast a soothing warmth on the gathering and I could sense her quiet smile of delight as she surveyed the crowd that gathered to remember her. In large families, even your children, their spouses and those grandchildren close at hand are enough to generate a satisfying crowd.
The occasion was doubly poignant because earlier this week we lost Mrs O’Neill’s daughter, my lovely sister-in-law Deirdre after a short but vicious illness. That is a death that is even harder to come to terms with – a young woman leaving behind a husband, 3 sons, a young daughter, 4 sisters and 5 brothers, all devastated by her loss. Dee – warm, generous, funny, colourful, loyal, free-spirited, a leader, determined, a keeper of promises – we miss you.
I know at times in the past few weeks, as we came to terms with the finality of Dee’s illness, our emotions ranged from disbelief to anger to deep sadness to numbness and a bone-rattling, chilling shock. Tonight, in that room, there was something else, a quiet acceptance, a letting go and a communal sense of love and compassion.
Afterwards we ate beef-filled pasties prepared by the sisters to their mother’s recipe, shaped like the jiaozi pot-sticker dumplings served at Chinese family get togethers – dumplings to remind you how family wrap themselves around you even when you are far away.
Shane commented to Shan earlier this week in Beijing that it had been a rotten start to the year and she replied that no, it was just a bad end to the old year. Because, as the last moon of the lunar year wanes, Chinese people across the world prepare to say farewell to the year of the dragon. The year of the snake is almost here. In our house, we are all in favour of starting the new year over.
As we wait to see if Shane and Shan’s baby will be a Dragon or a Snake, the time seemed right for me to embrace this new dimension of our family and our tiny Sino-Irish dynasty in the making. So I have been collaborating with the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival to develop a new dimension to the festival this year – A Taste of China. You can read all about it here.
Over the next few weeks, we hope to post a different recipe each day from a wide variety of restaurants around Dublin and further afield, both Chinese restaurants and Irish restaurants where the chefs are even a little bit susceptible to Asian fusion influences. First up are recipes for Stir-fried Chicken with Celery from New Millennium Restaurant in Dublin and Confit Duck Spring Rolls from Tom Walsh, Head Chef at Samphire@The Waterside.
We hope you will join in the fun and if you are a chef, restauranteur or food blogger who would like your recipe included on the Chinese New Year website, just leave a message here, a comment on my blog or DM me on Twitter @julieon.
Here in our family, we have all been changed by the events or recent weeks, in ways we don’t yet fully understand. But we owe it to the generation yet unborn to continue to nurture the multi-cultural traditions of family. And what better way to do that than through food.
春节快乐 Happy Spring Festival