By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The hot rice, shiny and glistening with water, was simmering under a lid. When Aiden Yin, 16, lifted the lid, a gust of steam shot out.
The Lunar New Year had begun. Well, almost.
The day of the beginning of the two-week-long celebration would not commence for another week. But the preparations, at least, had begun.
A group of 40 students from Bellevue and surrounding school districts, parents, and organizers spent Saturday afternoon making hundreds of “Eight Treasure Rice Puddings” to sell for charity, to give as gifts, and to mark the annual cycle when Asian families gather by one means or another.
(There are various legends associated with the origins of the pudding, but all agree that the number “eight” is lucky and promises good fortune.)
The small room donated by the Salvation Army of the Eastside was packed and humming with voices, children’s and adults’—humming with laughter and recriminations.
“We knew how to make it according to traditional patterns,” said Yin, a junior at Newport High School. “But the younger kids, they were really artistic.”
Nicholas, a 13-year-old who did not want to give his last name, confided that he had used the dates, seeds, and goji berries to make smiley faces and numerical patterns in the traditional rice pudding.
“It was a success,” said Lucas Wangelin, 15, a sophomore from the International School, who helped run the event. “Families came together sharing traditions.”
Parents and organizers
Perhaps this explains the fervor of the participants at Saturday’s event. Organizers ordered food weeks in advance, from Costco and China.
Volunteers rose at 4 a.m. to prepare.
And a gaggle of parents fervidly took part in making the dessert.
“The parents really came together well and figured out a great production line,” said Janine Le, another organizer.
A special demonstration
But the kids were pretty excited, too.
Several told me about the mythological story of the monster Nian—part of the Lunar New Year cosmology—that is supposedly scared away with firecrackers during the celebrations. Others talked about building friendships during the event.
Koby O., 13, who asked for his last name to be redacted, said he was sitting in the back of the room and had a hard time hearing, so a classmate helped him learn each step.
“I got closer to him,” he said. “Everyone had a part.”
Yin ran from the kitchen to tables, carrying rice and other ingredients. When the show was all over, he put on a special demonstration for Northwest Asian Weekly and its readers about how to make this delicacy.
Here’s what you need:
Pork lard (substitutes, such as olive oil, ok)
Then, the eight treasures (there were actually nine):
First, cook the rice. Then add sugar on top. A pinch will do. Add oil or lard. A little bit. Mix.
Because this will be the top of the dish—when the finished product is flipped over—this is what the eater will feast his or her eyes on first.
Yin started with a Lotus seed.
Around the very rim of the dish, lay goji berries so that they form a red barrier. The color red is symbolic of good fortune. Yin explained that goji are used in countless Chinese medicine concoctions.
“So it’s medicinal as well?” I asked.
“Yes,” he smiled.
After this ring is set in place, another layer of rice is laid down. But this time, a bowl of rice is created. The sides of the dish are now pasted with rice while the middle is left lower. This creates a hollow so that red bean paste may be floated in afterwards.
Dates and other delicacies are pivoted into the rice so that they form balustrades along the edge of the rice. Each one should be facing outwards, presenting a railing of red posts projecting more good fortune outwards to shine and beam upon the beholder.
“Or chocolate pudding,” said Nicholas, who was simultaneously giving instructions to Yin as he watched from the side.
Yin turned the concoction over and scooped it out of the bowl.
For a second, I held it in my hands, contemplating what it would taste like.
But then the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that my editor had once sent me flashed through my mind.
“No gifts,” it said.
I had to hand it back.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.