The Chinese New Year Hot Pot
To celebrate Chinese New Year every year, we get together with our family and relatives and have a traditional Chinese hot pot dinner such as the one shown here on the right. A hot pot is simply a boiling pot of plain water; ingredients are put in the water, making a type of combination stew, broth and soup. Each person cooks his own ingredients in the boiling water, usually swishing the piece of food around until it is cooked, or simply submerging the food and taking it out when it is done. The food cooks quickly, each person gets to eat exactly what they want, and at the end of the event everyone is left with a rich, flavorful soup. Each family brings raw ingredients that he or she would like to cook in the hot pot. The most popular food choices are types of marinated meat, such as chicken, beef, fish, or shrimp. Vegetables such as cabbage or tofu are also used. Seasoning is provided by salt, soy sauce, onions, and often white pepper. Any type of hot pot will work, however since the hot pot is most usually placed on the dining table between the participants, an electrically heated pot is often most convenient. Often the host family provides other dishes, such as clear rice noodles or plain steamed white rice, which are meant to compliment the food from the hot pot.
I collected this piece of folklore from my grandfather on my mothers side. He was born in China, moved to Taiwan for while, and then immigrated to the United States when he was in his twenties. He attended the University of Southern California and worked the rest of his life as a mechanical engineer. He eventually owned his own industrial air conditioning design company which was very successful, and retired comfortably in Torrance, California. He said he learned this tradition of the New Years hot pot from his family back in China. He does not know where or from whom the tradition originated. However, he says that the idea of the potluck, where each brings his own food, is central to the idea of the New Year. The idea of many different types of food ultimately making a tasty soup is also important. He says this event represents a culmination of the past years experiences; the hot pot, as it accepts and combines all the different pieces of food from each individual, is symbolic of the group combining and reflecting on all their experiences from the past year. He said the hot pot helps them sum up the past year, and get ready for the next one. He also explained how the soup, itself a conglomerate of many different foods, is representative of the many varied experiences that each individual will face in the coming year. The circular nature of the hot pot also makes reference to the circular, continuous nature of human existence.
After talking to my grandparents on my fathers side, I soon discovered that this tradition was not all that widespread in China. My paternal grandfather had never heard of it. He was a little over ten years older, and unlike my maternal grandfather spoke Cantonese. Cantonese is one of the two major Chinese dialects, the other of which is Mandarin. Mandarin is more widespread and is spoken more often in urban areas. From this information I was able to theorize that this tradition of ushering in the New Year with a hot pot dinner was either specific to urban areas, or originated after my paternal grandfather had come to America in the late 1920s. Or, this tradition could simply be local, limited to my maternal grandfathers neighborhood.
By establishing this tradition of a hot pot dinner to celebrate every Chinese New Year, my grandfather is in a way preserving Chinese traditions that may have otherwise been forgotten. Since Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, it falls on a different day each year. In some years it can come as late as mid February, while it usually comes sometime during January. Because our western calendar is based on the solar cycle and due to the changing nature of the date of Chinese New Year, many businesses do not recognize it as a holiday. Consequently, living in the United States, it is very easy to simply forget the biggest holiday in Chinese culture. When time is not set aside for an event, it is very easily pushed out of the mind of the general public.
Having lived in this country for over sixty years, my grandfather was well aware of this fact; consequently he has always made it a point to celebrate Chinese New Year with us. Always repeating this same traditional dinner, he instilled in us a greater sense of our Chinese ancestry and heritage. It has not always been easy, as Chinese New Year often falls on a day inconvenient for one or more members of my family. My grandfather realized the changing times and did not insist that we have our hot pot dinner on the traditional night, Chinese New Years Eve. As a result, we often celebrated it the weekend before or after the actual date. However, by doing the celebration this way we say the true value of these traditions. The importance lies not in the mere tradition, but in the psychological involvement of the individual in the tradition. In other words, it is not the mere hot pot dinner on that specific night that is of great importance. It is the act of taking the time to stop and think about our Chinese roots that was important to my grandfather. He did not care if we carried out the tradition on the exact day or not. He merely wanted us to stop our daily lives and remember our Chinese heritage. This special dinner has always accomplished this purpose adeptly, and serves as a great way to welcome in the New Year with friends and family.