Monday, January 23, 2012

Pin It

Happy Chinese New Year!

I have not been home in Malaysia for Chinese New Year in 20 years.  This year,  in particular,  I am feeling particularly nostalgic about celebrating the event in years prior to leaving home for college.  I have so many fond memories of celebrating the New Year with close Chinese friends and family.
Mum & Aunty Khim
One thing that was a tradition for our family when we were kids was to go to my mum's closest friend Aunty Khim's house for a Steam Boat feast.  First let me tell you about Aunty Khim - seriously,  one of the best Chinese cooks I have ever encountered in my life.  I remember her always cooking this, that or the other and bringing some over to our house to share.   Do you know those prawn crackers that they serve at the Chinese restaurants?  Aunty Khim makes her own every year.  She mixes a combination of flour,  spices and finely minced prawns,  rolls the mixture into logs then painstakingly slices the logs into the thinnest chips you can imagine.  The chips are then left out in the sun to dry.  Once dried,  they are stored in tins lined with newspaper to protect them from the high humidity.  When deep fried,  they turn into the lightest,  crispiest,  most delicate of prawn crackers exploding with flavor.  Once you've had Aunty Khim's,  you'll never want to eat the huge, flavorless, sometimes hard and crunchy and often tinted with food-coloring versions you get at the Chinese supermarkets and restaurants.   Ok,  but I've lost my train of thought - we were talking about Steam Boat,  weren't we? 
Every Chinese New Year,  Aunty Khim would have us over to her house for Steam Boat - this is what we called it back home,  waaaaaay before "hot pot" became a thing here.  This is a tradition that was handed down to her by her mother and that she faithfully carried out with her own particular flair and passion every year.  We would arrive at her house at around 7pm.  There would be a long table set up outside with the bottom of the Steam Boat ready and waiting for the large "boat" that carried a flavorful broth in which to cook all the other ingredients.  We'd all mill about - kids playing,  adults chatting while inside a frenzy of prep work was underway.  Her kitchen resembled the lab of a mad scientist - large pots boiling on the stove,  serving dishes of filled with a variety of foods on every surface.  Without an inch of counter space to spare,  somehow she worked her culinary magic to perfection.  She would be slicing meats,  fish and veggies paper thin.  Prepping tofu and squid,  peeling shrimp,  washing beansprouts and watercress,  chopping garlic, frying shallots and preparing a variety of dipping sauces including that famously ubiquitous chilli sauce, without which no Malaysian meal is complete.  There would also be a variety of noodles and yong tau foo (different styles of tofu and vegetables stuffed with fish paste),  quail's eggs, mushrooms, crabs, blood cockles and mussels.  Wow,  what a lot of food - what a lot of prep!
Once the table was laden with this array of offerings,  the top portion of the steam boat would be carefully carried out to the table,  steaming with a delicious,  aromatic broth in which to cook everything and the feast would begin.  We were all provided with chopsticks and our own individual straining ladles with which to pick out whatever we wanted from the Steam Boat.  She would hover around the table,  supervising and demonstrating  - "Some things take longer to cook" and "Get that out of there,  it's almost overcooked!"  The meats,  mushrooms and seafood impart their wonderful flavors to the broth as they are cooked,  which in turn bestows these flavors to the tofu, vegetables and noodles as they cook.  I must say - the Chinese REALLY know how to eat!  Isn't that pure genius?
Another fond memory is a tradition that is particular to the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese - a dish called Yee Sang.   It's a raw fish appetizer that is believed to usher in good luck for the New Year.  The dish is made up of a plethora of ingredients that all carry specific meanings for wealth,  health and success.   When the dish is brought to the table,  the family stands up around the table and proceeds to toss the ingredients together with chopsticks to mix everything up.  The belief is that the higher one tosses the ingredients,  the more successful the New Year will be - in our family,  that usually means that a lot of it ends up on the table!  Yee Sang is traditionally served on the seventh day of the New Year,  believed to be a very auspicious day and referred to as "Everyone's Birthday".  Aunty Khim tells me that the Steamboat feast was also traditionally held on "Everyone's Birthday".  This year,  that day falls on Sunday, the 29th of January.  I hope you'll all do a little something special this Sunday.
I could go on and on about more of the Chinese New Year traditions back home,  but I'm making myself incredibly homesick and very hungry.  You'll hear a lot more about Aunty Khim in future posts - she's my go-to for any sort of query regarding Chinese food and is always ready to help me learn something new.
What are some of your favorite Chinese New Year memories and traditions?  
I wish you all a very Happy Chinese New Year - may the energy,  vitality and courage of the Dragon propel you towards your most heartfelt dreams.  Gong Xi Fa Cai. Pin It

No comments:

Post a Comment