Don’t Freeze Your Ears Off: What to Eat During the Dongzhi Festival

Don’t Freeze Your Ears Off: What to Eat During the Dongzhi Festival

You might know about the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. But do you know about the Dongzhi Festival, a kind of winter solstice celebration in China?

Translated as “the extreme of winter,” Dongzhi is celebrated close to the winter solstice, falling on December 21 this year. And like a lot of Asian holidays, it’s a time for family members to get together and chow down.

A Dongzhi dish that originates from southern China is tangyuan, a kind of sticky and colorful glutinous rice ball filled with sesame or sweet red bean paste or meat with sweet herbs. Relatives gather and make the balls together, then eat them in a sweet or savory broth, or sometimes a mild rice wine. The roundness of the balls symbolizes togetherness and completeness.

In Taiwan, not only do people make and eat tangyuan, some also apparently use them as talismans to keep evil spirits away from children by sticking them on windows, the backs of doors, or on flat surfaces such as tables and chairs.

In northern China, the Dongzhi cuisine of choice are dumplings. Legend says this tradition was originated during the Eastern Han Dynasty by physician and inventor Zhang Zhongjing. Seeing his fellow townsfolk suffering from the the cold — especially with chilblains in the ears — he cooked up a platter of what he called jiao er, or “dumpling ears,” due to their ear-like shape.

Chocked full of warming and fatty ingredients like meat, ginger, and garlic, it’s said the dumplings helped people fend off the cold and illness, and lift their spirits during those dark winter days. It’s still believed that your ears will freeze if you don’t have dumplings during the Dongzhi Festival. Not that you need an excuse.

Want to learn more about Asian food and culture? Check out our posts on the histories of fortune cookies and egg tarts.

[Photos: "Tang yuan" by Joy via Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Tang yuan in broth by pinky168 via Instagram; "Pork, cabbage, and tofu dumplings by Joy via Flickr, CC BY 2.0]

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