One of the lesser-known (to foreigners) Chinese holidays is the Double Ninth or Chung Yeung Festival (重陽節). The Double Ninth Festival takes place every year on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. In 2020 that will be October 25th. Although it is a popular holiday celebrated in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, it is only a public holiday in Hong Kong and Macau. However even without a day off, it has still remained a popular holiday in China and Taiwan throughout the years. The Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei, wrote a famous poem about the Double Ninth Festvial, and a popular Chinese movie, The Curse of the Golden Flower, starring Chow Yun Fat, has a plot centered around the Double Ninth Chrysanthemum Festival.
All Chinese festivals have their own legend, so of course the Double Ninth Festival does as well. At one time, during the Han Dynasty, there was a devil inhabiting a river and making the nearby villagers sick. A young man in the village, Hengjing, lost his parents to the devil’s magic, so in order to be able to rid the people of the devil, Hengjing went through extraordinary lengths to find an immortal to teach him swordsmanship.
On the eighth day of the ninth lunar month, the immortal told Hengjing that the next day the devil would appear and he was to go back to get rid of the devil and the disease. Taking a bag of dogwood and some chrysanthemum wine, Hengjing returned to his hometown. In the morning of the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, Hengjing led all the villagers who were each holding a piece of dogwood leaf and a cup of chrysanthemum wine to the nearest mountain. When the devil came out from the river, he stopped because of the fragrance emitted from the dogwood and the chrysanthemum wine. At that moment, Hengjing pulled out his sword and was able to beat the devil. Since then, the Chinese have been celebrating the Double Ninth Festival.
Today, the Double Ninth Festival has been given new meaning. In 1966, Taiwan designated it “Senior Citizens Day” as a day to care for the elderly. In 1989, government of China followed suit and also set it aside as a day that people should respect, care, love, and help the elderly. Activities, including autumn outings, sightseeing and mountain climbing, are organized during the festival for older, retired people so that they can enjoy nature. Many young people also accompany the elderly on outings, or prepare some delicious food for them. Hiking and drinking chrysanthemum tea or wine are some of the most popular things to do based on the original story behind the holiday. This is why some call it the Chrysanthemum Festival.
The most popular food to eat during the Double Ninth festival is cake. The word for cake, 糕 (gāo) is a homophone for height 高 (gāo) so eating cake is a way for people to gain some height without actually having to climb a mountain. Cake also pairs well with chrysanthemum tea! Each region has their own version of cake to celebrate the holiday. A simple cake to make at home is a steamed nine-layer cake from the Hakka people of Taiwan.
Hakka Chung Yeung Cake Recipe (客家九層糕)
- 2½ cups rice flour
- 2½ cups cool filtered water
- 6 tablespoons white sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon banana or almond extract
- Mix the rice flour and water together until it makes a smooth slurry.
- Pour 1½ cups of the slurry into a bowl, and stir in the white sugar and optional extract.
- Stir the brown sugar into the remaining slurry until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
- Select a square or round cake pan (8 or 9 inches) that fits easily into your steamer. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and spray the inside of the pan lightly with oil. Place the pan in the steamer and raise the heat under the steamer to high.
- Starting with the brown sugar slurry, pour ½ cup of the slurry into the cake pan, moving the pan around so that it even coats the bottom of the pan. Be sure that the steamer and pan are level so that you end up with even layers. Cover the steamer and cook that layer for about 2 minutes, or until the surface is solid.
- Pour 6 tablespoons of the white slurry on top of the brown layer, again moving the pan around so that it coats the bottom evenly. Cover the steamer and cook the cake for another 2 minutes. Repeat these two steps, alternating the brown and white slurries, until you have finished it all up; you should end up with nine even layers.
- Cover the steamer and steam the cake over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, adding more water as necessary to the steamer. Turn off the heat, remove the cake, and let it cool to room temperature. Then loosen the cake by pulling gently the edges toward the center of the pan, and empty the cake out onto a serving plate. Cut and serve.
Share this cake with your elderly neighbors and family with some chrysanthemum tea and have a happy 重陽節!