How To Eat A Dragon
Image Credit: Dragon Noodles

THE IMPORTANCE of the changing seasons and natural cycles of growth is perhaps best celebrated by agrarian societies. For those who are dependent on the land to make a living, every phenomenon associated with it gains a significant hue. So, it is with Chinese countryside communities that rely on farming. 

At this time of the year, these communities celebrate a curious festival known as Zhonghe, or Longtaitou. Translated, the festival’s name implies a “dragon raising its head”, and indeed the dragon figures prominently in the customs associated with Longtaitou. 

For the ancient Chinese, the Dragon King was the deity who presided over the rains (and also controlled calamities like typhoons and floods). Longtaitou was meant to mark the time when hibernating insects awoke (as did the sleeping Dragon King), spring beckoned as did warmer weather, and the first showers could be anticipated. Thus, it was necessary to propitiate the Dragon King to ensure he would grant good rains, and in turn, guarantee a bountiful harvest. People ritually purified their homes, burning bunches of herbs that would repel pesky insects and any lurking spirits. Plant ashes would be scattered all around the home and even an earthen jug, to invite the Dragon King to bring rain upon the land. Sometimes, women and children would get haircuts on the day of the festival — once again, tying into the sense of renewal. Temple fairs would entice visitors to leave their homes and congregate with the community in a joyous atmosphere.

Of course, there were specific customs pertaining to the food eaten on Longtaitou too. The troika of a dragon’s ears (dumplings), a dragon’s scales (Chinese pancakes, or spring rolls) and a dragon’s beard (noodles) was the most common meal, with ancient lore linking the eating of these foods to the assurance of plentiful rain and a promising harvest. People would also eat “dragon’s seed” — popcorn.

Dragon Beard Noodles, for instance, are believed to have been created by a Ming Dynasty-era chef from the Shandong province, working in the emperor’s service. The chef created long and unusually thin noodles that resembled the “beard” depicted on Chinese dragons. These so delighted the emperor that he called for them time and again. Soon enough, this variant of noodles had also gained popularity among the common folk, and it became customary to eat them during Longtaitou for their perceived connection with the dragon.

The festival menu also reflects regional influences. For instance, in Fujian, tofu and vegetable balls are believed to bring good fortune (especially in business) to the family that eats them. Meanwhile, in Shandong fried beans are de rigueur, as are chengyao cakes (made from sticky rice) in Jiangsu province’s Suzhou city.