Walking in the rain yesterday, in my sodden boots and enduring the nth day of bad weather and freezing cold, I remembered this article I wrote a few weeks ago. Standing on the cusp of February – which I forever think of as ‘CNY Month’ – there’s nothing i wouldn’t give to hear some ‘七个longtong呛咚呛’ music and munch on pineapple tarts right now.
As Christmas becomes an ever more distant memory and January plods on, I find my thoughts moving towards Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year is like a food marathon for me, as we visit several relatives over the course of a day. I’ve come a long way from my childhood, where I used to eat so many peanuts and ‘heaty’ goodies while visiting that fever and coughing fits would inevitably follow, but still I dream – and was actually kept awake the other night thinking of all these below.
In my mind, we start at my paternal grandmother’s house. I hunger for the steamboat spread that we have on New Year’s eve, with my favourite Foo Chow meatballs and fish maw. I yearn also for the fried noodles, fried beehoon, and fried chicken wings – nowhere makes it like she does – that we have at her house on New Year’s day.
At the next stop, my maternal grandmother’s house, we will be treated to a vegetarian spread. Once-a-year dishes such as black moss with dried mushrooms and lotus with red dates sweet soup accompany the main event – Hakka vegetarian chicken. Just the thought of it in my mouth can bring me close to tears.
From hereon we do our visiting in a pack – with my maternal uncles, aunts and cousins. The following two houses of my grand aunts’ are for all our stomachs to take a breather. That just means we reign ourselves in slightly, picking at pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit and hae bee hiam, while we gear up for the next stop.
Because the next stop holds a gem – grand aunt’s homemade Chinese rice wine. Smooth, sweet, full bodied and strong. Every year we ask her for the recipe, which we scribble down and forget till the following year comes around.
Wine goes well with food, and at the fourth house a treat makes its second appearance – more Hakka vegetarian chicken. One simply does not tire of this dish, and the few precious pieces in our bowls are quickly devoured.
At the following stop, we make a beeline for the dining table and settle down – relaxed, knowing that it’s the last house for the day. This grand aunt is a mean cook, and her Hakka abacus seeds, pak cham gai (Chinese white chicken) and fried beehoon disappear from the plates, just slightly more slowly this time.
Of course, this dream is only of the Chinese New Year that I can never have. Being away from home at New Year is the obvious reason, and also because some grand aunts have passed on, and their culinary skills along with them. But this Chinese New Year, I know just what I will be thinking of, while sitting at my desk with my packed lunch beside me: