Well Chinese New Year this year was spent in Venice, unpacking boxes!! I guess a good way to start the year in a new home!
This year (Year of the Ox) – began on Jan 26th and the celebration lasts for 15 days (until Feb 9th). Last year was the Year of the Rat – we saw a lot of things unfold worldwide. Year of the Ox will symbolise the return to the basics and values such as hard work, honesty, preservarence and modesty to help us go through these tough times. The Ox is known to be dependable, calm, pragmatic and self sacrificing. The Year of the Rat – undoubtedly delivered the consequences of the past years of greed, selfishness, dishonesty and ego. All our actions have consequences – and cumulatively it got so bad that it had to go out with a big bang! What will this year hold for us? We will see , but right now it is probably most prudent to ask ourselves what have we learned and how will we live this new year.
Tradition has it that the Chinese New Year means family reunion and on the eve we have the big reunion dinner. The dinner consists of various traditional dishes of each family or a hot pot. In my family, being with Peranakan influences – we would normally have ‘jiu hu char’, ‘nyonya chicken curry’, ‘roti babi’, ‘chap choy’, ‘lor bak’, spring rolls, ‘tu toh th’ng’ and rice. Of course days before the event, my family and our relatives will also start making cookies and traditional cakes. Not to mention a major spring cleaning too.
We used to make ‘kuih kapit’ aka love letters – but now our parents generation are getting older, they don’t do it anymore. The ‘kuih kapit’ we made were awesome, and they were made the traditional way over hot coals. They are thin rice/coconut milk wafers – that crackle and melts in your mouth. It is quite hard these days to find good ones. Electric made ones are not as good!
Another traditional cookie is ‘kuih bang kek’ – which are also with coconut and tapioca flour based. They are delicious – almost like unbaked cookies as they look ‘white’. They come in various animal shapes. See photo on the left (from www.knowingfood.com). This photo shows the exact way they looked like as I know them when I was a kid. Normally my mother will also order pineapple tarts from her colleague, Aunty Jane (who unfortunately passed away) – and she made the most delicious pineapple jam tarts ever! In addition to that, we have ‘layer cake’ (kuih lapis) – similar to the Indonesian kuih lapis, ‘sugee cake’ (rosewater, almonds and sugee cake) , peanut cookies and cashewnut cookies. All these are served with dried fruits (geng geng), red dates and melon seeds aplenty to our visitors. Some families will also make ‘tong sueh’ – sweet soups with various dumplings or with dried fruits and seeds.
I love ‘tee kuih’ – caramelised, glutinous rice steamed cakes, wrapped with banana leaves. You can only find them during Chinese New Year. They are made as offering to the ‘Kitchen God’ so that he does not report any bad deeds to the Jade Emporor (Tee Kong). It is gooey when freshly steamed but taste excellent rolled with coconut shavings seasoned with a little salt. You can also fry them by sandwiching between a layer of yam and another layer of sweet potato – coated with batter and deep fried. In Penang, there is a famous stall close to Heng Ee school on Free School road. They have delicious fried bananas (pisang raja), yams and sweet potato balls too. If you are curious how Tee kuih is made – you can watch on YouTube on the making of ‘Tee Kuih – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F59rQt3k9A
During this festive season, red packets are given out to children and unmarried members of the family or friends. These red packets or commonly known as ‘ang pows’ have money in them. For children this is extra fun, since you get the extra pocket money to buy more firecrackers or sweets! Firecrackers – yes an essential part of CNY and ‘lion dance’. This is to usher more luck and chase away evil spirits. When visiting friends or relatives we bring along mandarin oranges as they symbolises ‘gold’ or pomelos in cantonese meaning ‘abundance’. The first 2 days of CNY are dedicated to visiting relatives and friends. In Malaysia being multi ethnic, it is common for chinese families to have ‘open houses’ for friends of other ethnic groups to visit and makan together.
The 3rd day of CNY is normally regarded as not a good day to visit anyone and a day where one visit the graves of ones’ ancestors to pay respects.
Another symbolic dish only for CNY on the 7th day is Yee Sang- raw fish salad – meaning increase in abundance, prosperity and vigour. The trick is to toss it as high as possible with your chopsticks to signify ‘lo hei’ – increase in your fortune. This raw fish dish comes with a special sauce using plum sauce, rice vinegar, kumquat paste and sesame oil, and the fish (originally mackerel but today salmon is equally popular) was served with carrots, chilli, mengkuang (jicama), limes, jellyfish, red pickled ginger,etc. Today, this dish is eaten throughout the 15 days of CNY. Check this photo out by my friend Esther.
On the 8th evening (as the 9th day of CNY is the Jade Emperor’s birthday) is a big prayer day fo the the hokkiens where many live in Penang, my hometown. My maternal side is hokkien, so we have a table in front of our house – the idea again is to have a high table (so closer to heaven) – and offerings are made to Tee Kong (Jade Emperor). There will be mee koo (red buns), ang koo (tortoise cakes), huat kuih (prosperity cakes), roast duck, sugar cane, big jossticks, fruits – the whole works. Also ghim chuah (joss paper) are being folded and burned. Sugar cane is very important. The legend has it that the Hokkiens escaped persecution by a cruel general in ancient China by seeking refuge in a sugarcane plantation. They emerged unharmed on the birthday of the Jade Emperor. So in gratitude, this has become a big prayer day for the Hokkiens. Photos below are from flickr nick chan.
The final day being 15th day, fondly known as Chap Goh Meh – my family will make ‘pungat’ – tastes like bubur cha cha except with extra bananas and sweet potatoes of all kinds (sweet potatoes, yam) in creamy sweet coconut soup. It is the last day and also the chinese’ Valentine’s day where maidens throw oranges into the river or sea (as done in Penang ) in order to attract good husbands. There will be prayers too, to mark the end of the celebration.