Today is xiǎo nián (小年—) in China, translated as Little Year or Little New Year, but also known as the Festival of the Kitchen God – a good day for a food blog. Little New Year, falls about a week before the Chinese lunar New Year and focuses on the kitchen god who oversees the moral character of each household. In one of the most distinctive traditions of Spring Festival, a paper image of the kitchen god is burnt on Little New Year, sending the god’s spirit to heaven to report on the family’s conduct over the past year. The kitchen god is then welcomed back by pasting a new paper image of him beside the stove. Although very few families still make offerings to the kitchen god on this day, many traditional holiday activities are still very popular.
Legend has it that during the Later Han Dynasty, a poor farmer named Yin Zifang was making breakfast one day shortly before the Lunar New Year, when the kitchen god appeared to him. Although all Yin Zifang had was one yellow sheep, he sacrificed it to the kitchen god. Yin Zifang soon became rich. To show his gratitude, Yin Zifang started sacrificing a yellow goat to the kitchen god every winter on the day of the divine visitation, rather than during the summer as had been customary.
There are numerous customs associated with honoring the kitchen god and determining the date of the Kitchen God Festival, or Little New Year. The date of this holiday was sometimes assigned according to location, with people in northern China celebrating it on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, and people in southern China celebrating it on the twenty-fourth. The date of Little New Year was also traditionally determined according to profession. Traditionally, feudal officials made their offerings to the kitchen god on the twenty-third, the common people on the twenty-fourth, and coastal fishing people on the twenty-fifth. The person officiating at the sacrificial rites was generally the male head of the household.
There are some traditional dishes associated with this day including huǒ shāo (火烧 ), baked wheat cakes, and dòufu tang (豆腐汤—),tofu soup, but none is more traditional than zào tang (灶糖—), stove sweet, also called táng guā (糖瓜—), sugar melons. The process is complex and requires considerable skill and experience, so I will describe it to you without expecting you to follow the steps yourself.
The ingredients for zào tang can be millet, barnyard millet, rice, corn or barley malt. The best choice is glutinous proso millet because it requires less time to produce a sticky mixture. The ingredients must be washed thoroughly to clean all the bran and impurities. Then they can be placed in a stew pot for boiling.
The first step is heating the ingredient until all the water has escaped and a uniform sticky mixture forms. The most important thing during boiling is heat control. If too much heat is used, the sugar will be overcooked and won’t have the crispy taste. On the other hand, if the heat is not enough, the sugar won’t be sticky at all. The semi-solid condition of the sugar is called sugar paste. By the time sugar paste starts to form, the temperature of the mixture reaches 158°C to 160°C. Experienced zào tang makers use a stick to draw some paste, if a white and transparent sugar wire can be drawn from the paste and the mixture stops producing bubbles on the surface, then the sugar paste is ready for the next step.
The second step is cooling. The sugar paste taken out of the pot and put into the jar to cool down. When the temperature of the paste reaches 80°C, it is ready for kneading.
The third step is kneading the sugar paste to make it uniform and dense. This process is a race against time because the paste cannot cool too much, otherwise it will harden. This step requires skill and strength. Only 3 kg of paste can be kneaded at a time. The process is a race against time.
The last step requires two people to pull the paste, fold it and pull again and repeat this process several times until a honeycomb structure forms inside the paste. Then the paste can be chopped into rectangular shapes or melon shapes and stored in the refrigerator.