Chinese New Year is a week long festival for the people of China. There is a week long vacation from work, while the city empties of many of the people and fills with the smell of sulfur from exploded fireworks. This morning I discovered several casings from fireworks up on our third story balcony, and we hadn’t lit a single one.
The sidewalks are empty, as people take a moment out of the usual hustle and bustle of Shanghai living to spend time with their extended families, and aside from the almost constant noise of fireworks, the buzz of the city dulls to a whisper.
It is a time to appreciate what you have and look forward to the year ahead. For many, Chinese New Year is the one time a year they can return home, including our Ayi. She has two children who live with her parents, while she in her husband work in separate cities to support the family. She traveled back to Guangzhou for the week, leaving Walker and me to really appreciate all that Ayi does for us when she is here with us. Consequently, you’ll notice I didn’t cook much while Ayi is gone. We don’t own a dishwasher, and Walker and I are both really lazy about washing up.
Our downstairs neighbor, Shu Shu (meaning Uncle) cooks in our house’s common kitchen, and the smell of it wafts up through the stairwell and through the alley behind our old lane house. For Chinese New Year, his wife returned to her home town to visit with her younger brother and his family, while Shu Shu stayed at home to watch over the family’s four cats. Walker says he senses a family feud, but I say, all the better for us.
Because Shu Shu was there by himself, I brought him some of the Almond Cookies. Chinese culture dictates that he make a big deal about not being able to accept the cookies before taking them. When we came back that night, he was so complimentary of the cookies, but culture also dictates that once someone does something for you, you absolutely must reciprocate, lest you lose face.
He is a phenomenal cook, leaving his wife nothing to do in the kitchen but eat. Every time I come down the stairs from our flat, he has made something else new and fragrant and inviting. It is traditional during Chinese New Year though to make dumplings for wealth, and so of course, he had to make a bowl of jiaozi too. A knock on the door later, and Walker and I had two big steaming bowls of jiaozi soup.
The jiaozi we ate at Walker’s coworker’s house were in the Dongbei style, and Shu Shu’s dumplings were very much in the Shanghai style, but with a twist from Shu Shu.
Typically, Shanghai cuisine makes dumplings with a slightly thicker “skin”, and with liquid inside. They’re incredibly tasty, and designed to scald your tongue, because the smell is so enticing that you can barely wait for them to cool. However, Walker and I were vaguely disappointed in Shanghai jiaozi, because they were not well flavored inside of the dumpling. There was broth and pork, but that was about it.
Shu Shu’s dumplings were also pork dumplings and had a broth inside but the pork was mixed with wonderfully fresh tasting Chinese cilantro and the broth was laced with a little spicy chili oil. They were in a soup of the same broth, and sprinkled with chives.
In short, Shu Shu has promised to teach me how to make them, and I hope I can hold him to that promise, photograph the process, and share it with you all soon!
Xin nian kuai le, from Shu Shu’s kitchen.