Catholic Recipe: Yuan-Hsiao
Also Called: Festive Dumplings
The Feast of Chung Ch'iu, which falls on the fifteenth day of the Eighth Moon, or sometime toward the end of August in the Western calendar, is one of China's most joyous occasions. In ancient lunar calculation, Chung Ch'iu comes at mid-autumn when the moon is full and the harvest ripe. The festival honors the goddess Heng-O, who rules the moon, and the Immortals who dwell there with her.
Chung Ch'iu, a night of magic, is dedicated to poetry and music. It is the custom to feast, pay debts, and give thanks for the harvest at this season. China is so vast that festival celebrations vary from place to place. Everywhere legends about the moon are essentially the same, but customs, and even dates, differ according to locality, social position, and economic status.
All ceremonies center about the moon which influences crops and harvests and is the traditional habitation of the gods. Heng-O lives in the moon with her white Hare. The Hare supposedly sits beneath a cassia tree, where it eternally pounds out the elixir of life. The goddess and her companion dwell in a white jade palace, as pale and cool as the light of the harvest moon.
Tradition says that flowers fall from the moon on the night of Chung Ch'iu. Women who see the blossoms will be blessed with children, men with wealth. Moon-gazing is a favorite pastime on this night. Everyone studies the face of the full moon and reports on the wonderful imagined sightsa golden mountain, a budding plum, a bowl that overflows with rice.
The Chinese have many proverbs and wise sayings about the moon. Some, like the following, are direct statements a person may interpret as he likes: "When the sun sets, the moon rises. When the moon sets, the sun rises," and "When the moon is full, it begins to wane. When the waters are high, they must overflow." Other sayings, like "A broken drum saves the moon," refer to the old custom: beating drums and sounding gongs to bring back the moon after an eclipse. Another well-known proverb observes, "How seldom is the moon overhead."
For Chung Ch'iu everyone prepares as many foods as possible in round shapes. Bakeries and sweet shops display large round mooncakes, made with brown sugar and decorated with pictures of the moon and the palaces of the Immortals. Children receive enchanting toys of small tile pagodas and amusing animals.
Traditional mooncake, which always is eaten at the festival, is impractical for the uninitiated to attempt. Many Chinese stores in the United States carry the cake, which is decorated with colored paper pictures of the moon and its palaces. But the recipe for the delicacy is almost impossible to obtain. "Old people make the cake from memory and are unwilling to reveal the secret-even to inquiring daughters," a young woman told me." 'If you want to see how mooncake is made, come watch me do it,' my mother told me when I asked for directions. Even though I watched carefully, I found it difficult to judge the quantities of various ingredients, or to follow the manipulations of the Venerable Cook."
Chinese almond cookies and Yuan-hsiao or boiled rice flour dumplings with sweet stuffing, make excellent substitutes for traditional mooncake. They are as round as the moon itself and so are appropriate to the mid-autumn feast. Both cakes and dumplings are delicious and may be served for any gala occasion.
Brown sesame seeds in skillet for 1-2 minutes, then pound to powder. Mix all the remaining ingredients, except rice flour. Place in paper bag and pound until fine enough to stick together when pressed with fingers. Form into small balls about 1/2 inch in diameter. Spread flour 1/8 inch deep on tray. Dip balls in water, then roll lightly back and forth in tray until no more flour will adhere. Quickly dip each ball into water and repeat process 4-5 times.
Have 3 quarts water boiling rapidly in large kettle. Drop in balls and boil 5 minutes. The balls will rise to surface. Add 2 cups cold water and boil 2-3 minutes longer. Place 4 balls in a sauce dish and serve warm with a little of the starchy water.
These small dumplings are delicious for dessert, especially when accompanied by crystallized ginger and tea.Recipe Source: Feast-Day Cakes from Many Lands by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960