30th January: Chinese New Year's Eve
O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
'Fan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord' by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
I was born on Chinese New Year's Day and so narrowly missed being a dragon - very auspicious, and am actually a snake - good wife material (about which I am not qualified to comment). Anyway I always note Chinese New Year, which in 2014 is a couple of weeks earlier than it was the year I slithered into the world.
Like the New Year festivities of other calendars around the world, the Chinese New Year lasts several days and there are many similarities between it and New Year festivals in other cultures. You clean your house, pay your debts, get the family together, play games, make resolutions, eat too much...drink too much. We're all the same under the skin and we all like a party now and again.
But do you know the Chinese New Year legend of the Kitchen God? I didn't. Here it is, and here he is.
There was once a rich farmer married to an exemplary wife called Guo. She was a wonderful cook, thrifty, a good housekeeper and everything that any mortal man might desire in his life companion. The farmer's land was fertile and with the help of the good wife, his riches and his luck increased year on year. But Guo's husband was not the faithful kind and not satisfied with what the gods had granted him. Despite his wife's many virtues he strayed and he left her for a younger model, the pretty Lady Li.
Time passed and the farmer lost touch with his good wife Guo, who moved far away. But after two years of extravagance and dissipation by him and his new girlfriend there was nothing left and of course the pretty Lady Li deserted her lover for another.
Serves the bad husband right you might think. The legend dates from the second century BC - but it's an eternal story.
Anyway the bad husband was left a beggar and he became a tramp, getting his meals where he could and roaming the countryside in rags. He begged at kitchen doors for mouldy grain and scraps. One day, fainting with hunger and sickness he found himself in a warm kitchen where delicious smells of cooking from the bright stove filled the air. He thought he had died and gone to heaven, but the kitchen maid assured him that her mistress always brought in beggars that they might have a good meal and dry clothes.
"I must thank your mistress" said the man.
"You can - because here she comes now" answered the maid.
The bad husband looked up and saw his former wife coming down the path to the house! He leapt up and looked for somewhere to hide, because he was so ashamed of how his unfaithfulness had reduced him. Just as Guo came into the room, her husband leapt into the stove. Guo was distraught. She tried to save him, but it was too late. He was turned to smoke and ashes.
But that is not the end of the story. When the bad husband arrived in heaven, the Jade Emperor looked at him as he trembled with fear before the throne of the Almighty.
"You know you did wrong" said the Jade Emperor, "and because of that, I will give you the position of Kitchen God"
And now, every New Year, one week before the turn of the year, the Kitchen God (whose earthly name was Zhang), reports to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of everyone in the house. And every house keeps a little shrine for the Kitchen God to live in, that he might be warm and cosy whilst he keeps an eye out.
So there you go. You never know who is watching you.
There are many customs associated with Chinese New Year. Eating a whole fish symbolises completeness and red is for luck. We have both.
Baked Red Mullet with Chinese flavours.
I red mullet per person, gutted and scaled but left whole.
Carrot, celery, spring onions, garlic, red chilli and fresh ginger all finely diced or shredded. A small handful for each fish.
White sesame seeds - a couple of teaspoons and a few slices of lemon or lime.
Make a marinade of 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, 2 tbs white wine, and a tablespoon of light flavoured vegetable oil.
Put the fish on a foil covered tray, sprinkle with the vegetables and pour over the marinade. Wrap tightly and leave for an hour or so. Bake at 190c for about 20 minutes.
Unwrap and smell those aromas! Sprinkle with a little fresh coriander if you wish. I didn't.
Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I am home.
'Quiet Night Thoughts' by Li Po (701-762AD)