Confucius had it right 2500 years ago: “If it’s not in season, I won’t eat it.”
This concept of seasonal eating has guided the way Chinese have dined for millennia. But instead of a set progression of seasons and months—spring, summer, January, February, and so forth—that comes at the same time year in year out, the seasons in China have always been more fluid.
This is because, rather than being subject to the dictates of man, these 24 seasons gracefully accommodate our planet’s relationship with the sun and moon.
And in addition to suggesting what should be on the menu, the Chinese calendar has been used at least since Confucius’s time to determine when to plant and harvest crops, when to get married or move to a new house, when to bury the dead or give offerings, and so on.
We often refer to the Spring Festival that begins some time in late January to mid-February as China’s “Lunar New Year,” but that is only half right—an incorrect Western interpretation.
There is no name like the "Lunar New Year" in Chinese because the calendar is actually lunisolar, affected by both the sun and the moon. The earth's relationship to the sun determines the start of each of the 24 solar seasons, and the dates of the new moon determine the start of each of the 12 lunar months.
Careful observations of the sun by ancient scientists gave this calendar two dozen solar seasons that last 14 to 15 days each, with a few days and leap years added here and there to accommodate bumps in nature’s annual cycle.
These seasons were given their uniquely descriptive names almost 2000 years ago during the reign of the great Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, and many of these convey beautiful images, such as "Ripening Grain" or "Startled Insects" or "White Dew." The year begins with "Spring Arrives" halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and ends with the season known as "Great Frostiness," when the Northern Hemisphere enjoys a cold slumber and silence descends upon the frozen fields and rivers.
As befits a way of eating that is tied to the land and the rhythms of the Earth, everything is actually eaten in its proper season: Fruits are enjoyed when they are at their juiciest; produce is harvested and eaten while it is in its prime; seafood is caught when it is at its tastiest; and animals are slaughtered and preserved as frigid winds start to blow down from the North to tell us that winter is on its way.
What this means to the eager diner in each of us is that when we plan our meals according to the Chinese calendar, ingredients can be timed more accurately to reflect what is actually in the market. Traditional holidays scattered throughout the year also have their own special dishes timed to celebrate what is most flavorful and healthy.
It’s a brilliant way to anchor one’s life to the world and to celebrate everything when it is at its peak. Seasonal eating may be trendy, and we may think of this as a new idea, but the Chinese had this all figured out eons ago, so it appears that we are just now waking up to this sensible and delicious approach to dining.
Here, then, is a peek at a Chinese year of food, with a brief description of each season (including when it begins this year) and China’s wonderful holidays, along with an idea of some amazing recipes that make the most of the 24 seasons’ bounty.
1) Spring Arrives (Lichun), February 4.
These are the happiest two weeks in the Chinese calendar, for Chinese New Year’s Eve (February 7 this year) and the Chinese New Year usually occur sometime around this time. While each region has its own favorites for the holiday meals, the chilly capital of Beijing celebrates with homemade dishes like spring rolls, roast duck soup with radishes, and laughing doughnut holes.
2) Rainy Days (Yushui), February 19.
People try to stay inside for the most part during the inclement weather of early spring in order to enjoy the enforced laziness of the season. The first full moon and the end of the two-week Chinese New Year period is marked by the Lantern Festival (on February 22 this year). Celebrate with a steaming bowl of sweet rice-dough ball soup after a hearty dinner of garlic crab and stir-fried vegetarian delight.
3) Startled Insects (Jingzhi), March 5.
Thunder and lightning rumble through the skies during this spring period, waking up even the smallest of creatures. Stay warm by spooning up sesame oil chicken soup with red dates, sipping a cup of ginger-longan tea, and munching on a plate of crispy fried griddle breads that will delight the child in all of us.
4) Vernal Equinox (Chunfen), March 20.
This marks the time when days and nights are equally long. Warm days will finally start to usher in the urge for fresh greens and sharper flavors. To celebrate, dishes like flash-fried pea sprouts with garlic, steamed fresh fish with green onions, and taro rice tantalize the palate with aromas fresh from the earth.
5) Clear and Bright (Qingming), April 4.
Ancestors are cared for on Tomb Sweeping Day, which is also sometimes called Cold Food Day, since offerings are first made to the spirits of family members before the living tuck in to their own delightful meal. This food, therefore, has to be able to sit around a short bit and still be tasty, and a menu of marbled tea eggs, sesame noodles, and quick pickles is more than up to this delicious task.
6) Rainfall of the Grains (Guyu), April 19.
The spring season winds down as summer appears on the horizon. The Double Third Festival (Shangsi) around this time calls for lounging at the water’s edge and cleansing oneself of any lingering bad luck. A picnic at the lake is definitely in order, and one featuring cold roast chicken, fried shrimp chips, and a spicy Manchurian salad will make the most of these first warm days.
7) Summer Begins (Lixia), May 5.
The Buddha’s birthday is honored during this season with Bathing the Buddha Day. This calls for a vegan lunch in the garden with platefuls of bok choy and sesame steamed buns, braised mixed vegetables, and coconut tapioca jellies.
8) Plump Grains (Xiaoman), May 20.
The beginning of summer’s bounty is celebrated here. As the weather heats up, the body needs to cool down, and so homemade dandelion tea is the perfect drink alongside a bowl of green onion noodles with poached chicken and a big dish of spicy cucumbers.
9) Ripening Grains (Mangzhong), June 5.
The Dragon Boat Festival usually lands somewhere during this season, and this year it arrives on June 9. The favorite holiday food is a rice tamale called a zongzi. So, prepare a dozen Cantonese tamales filled with pork and creamy mung beans, some garlicky mustard stem pickles, and a thermos of chilled red date nectar before driving out to the beach and cheering on your favorite rowing team.
10) Summer Solstice (Xiazhi), June 21.
Celebrate the triumph of the sun during the longest days of the year with a garden party that serves up delicious sticky roast pork ribs, vegetable-filled Taiwanese potato salad sandwiches, and iced lychee pearl tapioca drinks.
11) Balmy Days (Xiaoshu), July 7.
When it’s hot out, who wants to spend too much time in the kitchen? Instead, serve a cool lotus leaf rice porridge with a battery of easy make-ahead side dishes like toasted peanuts, bean curd with preserved eggs, and drunken chicken.
12) Sizzling Days (Dashu), July 22.
These are the dog days of summer. It’s hot inside and out, so cool off with a delightful spread composed of Sichuan cold noodles, blanched greens with peanuts, and chilled watermelon soup. Life is good.
13) Autumn Begins (Liqiu), August 7.
Produce is at its absolute best now. Rejoice in the season and the Chinese Valentine’s Day called the Night of Sevens (on August 9 this year) with luscious tomato and beef on a crispy noodle nest with a side of blanched lettuce leaves. A cold bowl of jellied green tea in sour plum sauce is the perfect gift for your sweetheart at dinner’s end.
14) Last Heat (Chushu), August 23.
Fishermen believe that this is when they can expect their greatest haul. Floating lanterns are often placed on the waterways to guide lonely ghosts during this period, too, so set out a dish of fresh fruit for the spirits, while for family and friends you might serve lemon duck alongside cool garlic shrimp and fried green onion breads.
15) White Dew (Bailu), September 7.
The Moon Festival on September 15 is China’s third big holiday, the others being New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival. Moon cakes are the traditional treat, but Taiwanese pineapple cakes are easier and just as delicious after a dinner of seafood and corn chowder with fried pork rolls.
16) Autumnal Equinox (Qiufen), September 22.
As the length of nights and days achieve perfect balance once again, heartier foods start to appear on the table. This is the perfect time for a dinner of easy and incredibly delicious caramelized eggplant and mushrooms, pearl meatballs, and crusty vegetable rice.
17) Cold Dew (Hanlu), October 8.
Brisk autumn winds usher in this season, and the following day is the Double Ninth Festival (the ninth day of the ninth lunar month). People climb hills to celebrate, enjoying the fall colors and the chrysanthemums. Prepare a backpack filled with delicious snacks to munch on at the summit: mum and wolfberry jellies, almond cookies, and chrysanthemum tea.
18) Frostfall (Shuangjiang), October 23.
As the Earth revolves into the last two weeks before winter and many creatures start to slumber away until spring, these two weeks are a time for enjoying the special foods of the season, such as filled lotus root fritters, hot Shanghai-style fish chowder, and fresh persimmons with black sesame custard.
19) Winter Begins (Lidong), November 7.
As storms bluster outside, a steamy kitchen filled with friends can make this one of the most joyous of seasons. Offer simple plates of Northern-style braised beef and tossed spinach with peanuts for your guests to nibble on as you all wrap pickled cabbage and pork dumplings to celebrate winter’s arrival.
20) Light Snowfalls (Xiaoxue), November 22.
Few things taste as good as charcuterie on a chilly evening. During the two weeks of this season, prepare for many days of feasting with a simple Hakka recipe for cured pork. This is delicious as a stir-fry with leeks, steamed on top of rice, or mixed into an omelet.
21) Heavy Snowfalls (Daxue), December 7.
A supper of Xinjiang-style roast lamb from China’s far west welcomes the season. As the scent of it fills the house, whip up some easy Uyghur pilaf and chili-flecked napa cabbage, and then settle down to a memorable meal.
22) Winter Solstice (Dongzhi), December 21.
Ningxia, a desert region up near Inner Mongolia, welcomes the longest of nights with a big pot of toe-warming lamb soup. Its slightly spicy broth filled with mushrooms and plump mung jelly pillows finds perfect accompaniments in a plate of sesame-flecked coiled bread and cups of eight-treasure tea.
23) Slight Frostiness (Xiaohan), January 6.
Laba Day, which means the eighth day of the last lunar month, falls on January 17 this year. It is a time for remembering one’s ancestors and asking for their blessings. The traditional foods for this day in particular, as well as all throughout the twelfth month, are sweet laba congee and savory laba noodles, as well as Chinese snow cones made with real or shaved snow.
24) Great Frostiness (Dahan), January 20.
Cleaning the house in readiness for the upcoming Spring Festival is a great excuse to stay inside where it is dry and warm. When Chinese New Year’s Eve arrives on January 27, enjoy a celebratory dinner featuring mango shrimp, stuffed omelet soup, and garlic sticky rice.
And we're back to the beginning! Now, it's time to celebrate the New Year:
Crunchy Spring Rolls (Zha Chun Juan)
- 5 dried black mushrooms, like Chinese mushrooms (xianggu), “flower” mushrooms (huagu), or shiitake
- 3 1/2 ounces boneless lean pork or chicken thigh meat (100 grams)
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- 4 tablespoons oyster sauce, divided (Lee Kum Kee brand recommended)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon rice wine (Shaoxing, Taiwanese Mijiu, etc.)
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
- 1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups peanut or vegetable oil, divided
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut into fine julienne
- 8 ounces mung bean sprouts (226 grams)
- 1/2 cup toasted chopped almonds (60 grams)
- 12 frozen spring roll wrappers
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (15 grams)
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (15 grams)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Kaoya Luobo Tang (Roast Duck Soup with Radishes)
For the broth:
- 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
- 1/4 cup finely sliced fresh ginger
- 4 green onions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
- Bones, scraps, and scrawny bits from 1 roasted duck (reserve the meat for topping the soup)
- 1/2 cup Taiwan Mijiu rice wine or sake
- 1 quart (1 liter) unsalted chicken stock (preferably free range and organic)
- 4 quarts (4 liters) boiling water, divided
- 1 teaspoon sugar
For the soup and assembly:
- 2 small fensi (skeins of cellophane noodles), about 1.3 ounces each, or an equal amount of another Chinese noodle, cooked [Editors' Note: we used lo mein]
- 2 tablespoons chopped dongcai (pickled napa cabbage) or suancai (Chinese mustard pickles)
- 1 medium (1 pound or so) Asian radish of some kind (Chinese luobo, Korean mooli, or Japanese daikon)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup shredded roast duck, optional
- 1 large handful chopped cilantro, optional
Are you celebrating the Chinese New Year? Tell us how in the comments!