Flirting With Food On Qixi Festival, The Chinese Valentine's Day
Image Credit: Zhinü the Weaver Girl reunites with Niulang, the Cowherd. Wikimedia Commons

AN ancient Chinese legend tells the story of two — quite literally — star-crossed lovers. In one of its most widely-known versions, a young man named Niulang was cast out of his home by his evil sister-in-law. All he was allowed to take with him was the family’s old cow. As Niulang wandered the land alone, the cow suddenly began to speak to him in a human voice. Ahead lay a stream, the cow said, where heavenly beings descended for a swim. If Niulang could persuade one of the beings to stay back, she might be his wife. 

Niulang approached the stream quietly and sure enough, there were several maidens splashing about in the water, so beautiful that they could not possibly be from earth. One of the young women in particular, sweeter and lovelier than the rest, captured Niulang’s heart. He wondered how he could make her stay back. His cow spoke up once again, and pointed to the garments the celestial maidens had cast aside by the side of the stream. If he hid the robes of the woman he loved, she would not be able to return to the heavens. 

Niulang did as the cow advised. He surreptitiously hid the garments he had seen the maiden — whose name, he gathered, was Zhinü — shrug off before entering the water. When the women finished splashing about in the stream, they put on their robes and sprang up into their home in the sky. All but Zhinü who, without her heavenly attire, could only look on. When Niulang came to her, she too felt the stirrings of love. 

Zhinü and Niulang lived together in matrimonial bliss for a while, but up in Heaven, the Emperor — who, as per some accounts, was also Zhinü’s father — grew angry that she had neglected her duties at home. She was a heavenly weaver, and without her gift, the celestial beings had no one to clothe them in the manner to which they were accustomed. The Emperor ordered that she be brought back home. 

When a distraught Niulang saw Zhinü being taken away to Heaven, he asked his old cow for help. The cow advised him to make a coat out of skin, which would allow Niulang to fly. Thus attired, Niulang was able to continue his pursuit of Zhinü across the sky. But just as he would have finally caught up with her, the Queen Mother Of The West created a vast celestial river to block his path. Desolate, Niulang began to weep. His sorrow touched the hearts of all the magpies and ravens on earth, and they decided they would help the two lovers. They formed a bridge with their wings so Niulang could cross the celestial river and meet Zhinü once again. 

Their love — and the birds’ actions — influenced the Emperor to decree that Zhinü and Niulang could meet, for an entire day, once every year. The day has been celebrated as the Qixi Festival since the time of the Han Dynasty. Qixi Festival is also known by another name: Chinese Valentine’s Day. People look to the stars Vega and Altair as symbolising Zhinü the weaver girl, and Niulang the cowherd, respectively. The celestial river that was meant to part them is, of course, the Milky Way. 

In other versions of the folktale, Zhinü and Niulang’s match is arranged by the Emperor himself, who grows furious when he sees how the newlyweds have ignored their duties, and thus punishes them. The tale of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” has made its way from China to other cultures as well, notably in Japan, where Qixi is observed as “Tanabata”, and in Korea, where “Chilseok” is the festival that builds on the same lore.

In modern-day celebrations of Qixi, food plays a central role and “Qiaoguo” is possibly the most important dish from the festive spread. To make Qiaoguo, flour is mixed with sesame, honey and sugar to form a dough. The dough is cut into strips or moulded into attractive shapes, then fried. These sweet and crispy treats aren’t the only Qixi mainstays: you will also find dumplings (not the usual kind, but with a ‘mystery’ filling that could comprise symbolic items like coins, red dates or longans, each signifying a different fate for the eater), noodles, five-nuts mix (longans, hazelnuts, peanuts, melon seeds, red dates — meant as an offering to the weaver girl), chicken (because people believe that if the rooster doesn’t crow at dawn, the day allocated to Zhinü and Niulang will never come to an end), red bean desserts (as red bean represents lovesickness) and Jiang Mi Tiao (glutinous rice mixed with soy flour, malt and syrup to form a dough, then cut into “sticks”, deep-fried, and dusted with sugar). Fruit like melon is cut into elaborate patterns and added to the table. 

Meanwhile in Japan for Tanabata, streetside stalls offer the best fare. The emphasis is on having a mix of sweet and savoury dishes. You could purchase Takoyaki — octopus balls encased in fried dough, or Yakisoba (fried noodles with pork, cabbage and sauces) Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes with a choice of toppings) and Yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers). On the other hand, Koreans mark Chilseok by eating wheat noodles, grilled wheat cakes and fried pumpkin. Dishes such as Miljeonbyeong (wheat pancakes) and Sirutteok (steamed rice cake with azuki beans) may also be served.

(In images from top: Shuang Pi Nai, a Cantonese treat for Qixi Festival; Takoyaki at a stall in Japan; Korean wheat noodles. Via iStock)