Happy Year of the Horse! And a tale of two grandfathers
Happy Lunar New Year!
Where I grew up, in Malaysia and Singapore, this festival (along with Hari Raya Puasa (the Muslim Eidl), Diwali and Christmas) were open-door celebrations, with neighbors and friends dropping in and out of the celebrants’ homes to wish them well and to partake of the festive goodies. They would mostly be invited, although it would be perfectly normal also to drop in unannounced (to avoid horrified looks, this helps if you know the person 😉 ).
My late Granddad’s best friend, Uncle Guan (which was actually his first name), was Peranakan Chinese. He was a descendant of late 15th and 16th century immigrants to the Indonesian islands, who adopted some of the local customs and style of dress, and developed their own hybrid of Nyonya or Baba Chinese cuisine.
He also might have been a perfect character for an Asian version of the TV drama, Big Love (albeit a more genteel, non-violent one) .
A tradition that was peculiar to the Babas is that they (by this I mean the men) sometimes had more than one wife, and he, his spouses and all the fruit of their loins, and of their loins’ loins, often lived quite happily under the same roof. This was the case with our lovely Uncle Guan, his first wife, Mrs Guan, his second wife, Mrs Teo, and their 11 children. Yes, I did say 11. People had heaps of kids in those days, so, with two wives, this was rather a modest number, really.
My Granddad and Uncle Guan had forged a firm and tight friendship from World War II days, when Malaysia was occupied by Japanese forces. They would sit and natter on for hours on end in Malay, the only language common to them (my Grandad didn’t have first-language familiarity with it), though between them, they must have spoken 8 or 9 languages. I found it incredible and charming that they still got their messages across with no worries, and their raucous laughter would ring out every few minutes, reverberating off the Teos’ newly painted walls of their modest, but impeccably kept kampung (or village) home.
The details of how their friendship flourished, I am not entirely sure of. But I have been told that my Granddad looked after the Teo family (Teo was their surname) during the war and offered them protection from the Japanese. The Indians, a much smaller minority than the Chinese, apparently posed less of a threat to the colonialists at the time, earning a few extra ounces of trust this way.
After the war, Uncle Guan started a ritual of including my Granddad and his entire family, comprising kids, kids’ spouses and grandchildren, at the Guan-Teo family’s Chinese new year reunion dinner, held on the eve of the new year. Traditionally, this party is almost sacred, for family only, so we were very honored indeed.
Their dinners were an astounding and memorable affair, a multi-sensory feast of up to twenty dishes. In my child’s mind, it resembled all the wedding parties I had attended, beating them handily in taste and presentation.
The meal would begin with sharks’ fin soup (I’m not sure if this was the real or artificial stuff), and include whole, steamed, gingery fish (a Lunar new year symbol of luck), roast chicken and duck, longevity noodles and my favorite, something named by the Guans simply as a yam cake.
This yam cake was absolutely the most orgasmically delicious thing my taste buds had had the pleasure of being tickled by (even at that tender age before I started to use such adverbs).
A steamed pudding of meat, likely pork, and purple yam, marinated with ginger, scallions and other hitherto-secret spices, possibly with flecks of black mushroom and Chinese sausage, the yam cake then encased in a mysterious skin which I believe could have been beancurd. It was steamed (though I remember the outer layer as being delightfully crunchy) and served piping hot, then sliced at the banquet table. As you bit into it, the sweet and savory, the crunchy and squishy, would all explode and meld in your mouth. You just didn’t want to stop eating the darned thing till it was all gone.
Now, if there’s anyone out there to whom this yam cake sounds familiar, please tell me its name. Offer me a recipe, and I may have to instate you as a permanent guest at reunion yam cake-workship dinners of my own!
For afters, we (my three brothers and I) could never get enough of Mrs Teo and Mrs Guan’s homemade pineapple jam tarts. On the butteriest, crumbliest base, sat a wodge of sweet, gooey homemade pineapple jam. While I’d eat mine slowly and daintily, savoring every bite of the modestly sweetened base with the almost chewy (in a good way) jam on top, my brothers would often stuff two or three into their mouths, nearly choking on the buttery powdery biscuit base because of the giggles that often accompanied this act of unadulterated greed. These are still tied at No. 1 in my Top Ten Tarts list (along with my mum’s, which were equally scrumptious. Yes, there’ll have to be a blog post on those soon).
As if that entire feast wasn’t good enough, Uncle Guan never let us come away without handing each of us several mandarin oranges and a plump hongbao, into which he had stuffed freshly minted notes (always of an even denomination for good luck).
Dumplings, which resemble money pouches, are an auspicious item to serve at Chinese New Year, a festival which goes on for 15 days. To make these vegetable ones, avoid telling long stories. Focus. Get these ingredients, and get to work 😉
- shiitake mushrooms, 100g
- chinese cabbage, about half, sliced thinly
- green onions or scallions, 2, diced
- chinese leek, 3, sliced thinly (white part only)
- garlic, 2, crushed
- ginger, 1 tbsp, freshly grated
- five-spice powder, 1/2 tsp
- hoisin sauce, 2 tbsp
- soy sauce, 1 tbsp
- sesame oil, 1/2 tbsp plus 1 tbsp veg oil of your choice
- chinese cabbage, about half, sliced thinly
- circular dumpling wrappers (from Chinatown or local Chinese supermarket)
- In a wok, saute, in the sesame oil with a bit of sunflower seed oil, the ginger, garlic, leek and onions till fragrant
- Add the mushrooms, cabbage and flavorings
- Stir fry quickly, till just done
- Take it off the heat
- Take one dumpling wrapper, add about a teaspoon of the veg filling in the middle of it, run a water-dipped finger around its circumference and then bring both ends together in a semi-circle. Pleat the top of the dumpling as you wish.
- Dumplings may be steamed in a bamboo or stainless steel steamer for 8 minutes, or fried in oil
- I steamed them this time and they were lovely, but will fry them next time!
(Warning: Dumplings on screen may appear larger than they are in real life!)