Foods traditions for the longest night of the year

December 22, 2013

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)
Little glutinous rice balls (tangyun) are a popular food to celebrate the winter solstice. These tangyun are filled with peanut butter while others are filled with black sesame seeds and sugar.

Folks all over the world marked the Winter Solstice with candles, games and poetry—but especially food.
The winter solstice, which occurs every December 21 in this hemisphere, is a day that seems tailor made for comfort foods and reminders of sunnier days.

Luckily, a lot traditional ethnic solstice foods—with origins from Iran to Korea--offer just that.

Amir Normandi is the organizer of the Chicago Nowruz Parade, which will be held in March. It marks the beginning of Persian new year and the end of winter.

The solstice, or yalda, signals the beginning of winter, which in Persian culture calls for fruity reminders of warmer times.
“They preserve many of the summer fruits and those become a rarity,” he says.”They are watermelon, melon, and peach, pears and apricots as dried fruits. So those are the ones they munch on as well as nuts from pistachios, hazelnut and so on.”

These foods and the all-night family solstice parties they accompany, bear symbolic meanings, he says.
“They want to be celebrating the emergence of light, and the victory of brightness on darkness,” he says. “And as far as the sweet and nuts, they represent fertility, wealth and happiness.”

Chicago writer Wen Huang says that when he was growing up in Northern China his family marked the winter solstice with boiled dumplings called jiaozi that vaguely resembled the shape of an ear. 

“Supposedly, if you have dumplings on the day of the winter solstice you will prevent your exposed ears from getting frostbites,” he says.
Another specialty for this celebration, called dong zhi, is mutton soup with lots of noodles.

“It’s because the mutton is supposed to be warming,” he says of the meat which is known for its yang properties. “For example, when I was growing up my dad would buy a quarter of a lamb and we would have mutton soup every night or mutton soup with noodles. It’s supposed to warm you up all winter long.“

But for WBEZ contributor Louisa Chu’s family, who came from Southern China, the winter solstice meant a different kind of dumpling altogether.

“Every year for the winter solstice we have what’s called tongyun, which literally translates to soup balls,” she says. “In their most basic form, they are little rice dumplings the size of marbles served in a very simple warm sugar sweetened soup. But now my parents have gotten into the latest technology, buying tongyun stuffed with black or red bean paste so when you bite into them they burst."

Korean cuisine takes winter solstice dumplings in yet another direction. Kim An lives in Huntsville Alabama, but her childhood memories of the solstice in Korea feature chewy rice dumplings in a sweet red bean paste.

“We call it patjuk and that is red bean soup, sweet stuff,” she said. “You put little rice cake balls made with sweet rice in [the soup].”

The legend goes that the red of the beans was supposed to ward off evil spirits, and each diner was awarded one chewy dumpling for each year he’d made it through another tough winter.

An remembers, as a child, welcoming the dish as a sweet departure from the rest of her diet.

“Most Korean food is spicy food, and that was sweet and delicious, especially that rice cake ball,” she says.  “It was sticky and chewy, warm and sweet and so we really enjoyed it!”

For those who don’t belong to a Chinese, Korean or Persian family, the winter solstice and its turn toward longer, brighter days still offers plenty to celebrate.

“The idea of celebrating it is to stay up all night, to have fun and to gather as a family to watch the sunrise,” Normandi says. “It’s to be witnessing the victory of light on darkness.”


Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing the Fat podcast. You can follow her at @monicaeng.