Thursday, January 19, 2006

Chinese New Year preparation


Before I could sit down and put my feet up after Christmas and ushering in 2006, time to think of Chinese New Year! I am trying to re-create the kind of CNY my cousins, brothers and I used to experience. Rather difficult when there aren't many children around in the family now, especially New Year's Eve.

I used to spend my New Year in Ipoh with my father's side of the family. My eldest uncle, Tua Pek, was the main organisor. My Sar Chek (3rd uncle) and his family, my father and us would go to my eldest uncle's place in Ipoh a couple of days before the first day of New Year. I've mentioned before that my father came from a family of 9 siblings, so there were lots of cousins to play with.

On the evening of our arrival, my Sar Chek will usually take a few of us into Ipoh town to get our supply of fireworks. I remember seeing stalls after stalls selling fireworks. People who had shophouses were playing fireworks by the road side. The whole Ipoh town was a cacophany of lights and sound. Sar Chek would let us pick whatever fireworks we wanted. We played sparklers when we were younger but as we got older, sparklers were for "babies". We chose "songsters" which, thinking back, was rather boring but the thrill of holding the 1" firework in your left hand while using a joss stick with your right hand to light the very short fuse and throwing the firework before the fuse ended. All it did was make a shrill "pfffft" sound. I remember playing with fireworks shaped like a hen. When lit, the rear end of the chicken spat fire, then it goes "pe-kak" and that was it. Then there was a firework which turned very fast when lit. It spun so fast that the lights formed a dome and it made a "pffoooooo" sound, changed colour and finish. Then there were the more expensive ones called "parachute". Place the tube on the ground, light it and it sparks colourful lights. Then "boom" and a parachute is shot out of the tube. The parachute then opened up and fell slowly to the ground. Quite a few of the parachutes got stuck on trees. I think our favourite was the "Moon Traveller". The firework had a long stick attached to it which we stuck into a soft drink bottle. Light the fuse and run away - quick! It makes a shrill "pffft" sound and then bang! Some had a spectacular bang with light. Those were more expensive.

The morning of the eve was usually a hive of activities. The children (meaning me, my brothers and my cousins) who had stayed up late the night before, usually slept in. By the time we woke up, the aunts would have gone to the Pasir Pinji market to get fresh ingredients for cooking. Ipoh style "jue cheong fun", "yau char kwai" and sweetened kopi-o were already laid out on the dining table. A mahjong table with food, tea and rice wine already laid out near the altar as offering to our ancestors. Usually on the table would be a whole chicken, some vegetarian dishes, jew hoo char and bak kien (which had already been cooked the day before for the taste to mature), bowls of rice, cups of tea and rice wine. The night before, my aunt would also be busy with lining fruits with specially cut red paper for offering to the "gods" who are taking care of the house and the family (past and present). These fruits are placed on the altar and joss sticks lit when offerings are made. Around late morning, we were all to troop up to the altar one by one to light joss sticks and prayed for family harmony and safety. At this point, we also invited our ancestors to partake in the offerings. After a while, one of the cousins would use a set of special tokens which were flipped onto the floor. That was a way of asking the ancestors if they were done with their lunch. If they were done, the table was cleared and we had our lunch. If not, we waited a short while before flipping the tokens to check again.

While we were keeping ourselves busy playing with each other and out of our parents' hair, my uncle who was the chief cook, coordinated the dishes and my aunts and mother helped him in the kitchen. The Ipoh house kitchen was HUGE! Well, it is big compared to the little compartment which passes off as a kitchen in the modern terrace houses. My Tua Mm (Tua Pek's wife), Sar Koh (3rd paternal aunt), Sar Chim (3rd uncle's wife) and my mother (she was Jee Chim or 2nd aunt to my cousins), together with my Tua Pek were busy cut, cook, laughed and traded gossips in the kitchen. Some dishes had already been prepared the day before, eg, jew hoo char (jacima bean/yam bean with cuttlefish strips) and bak kien (also known as lorbak). On the eve, the dishes prepared were du tor th'ng (peppery pig stomach soup) or lotus root soup, a chicken dish and some other dishes which name escapes me now.

I remember that throughout the day, we had free flow of fizzy drinks and mandarin oranges. In the dining area were a couple of crates of mandarin oranges and in the fridge were endless cans of fizzy drinks. Also, laid out near the dining table were CNY goodies of every description! Kuih kapit, kuih bangkit, pineapple tart, dragon biscuits (milk cookies shaped like dragons), peanut cookies, peanut candy, maat fung tau (beehive) and the list goes on. Any time we went into the dining room, we could nick something from tins. No one told us about too much sugar causing sugar high or having treats will spoil our meals. Some of the goodies were bought and some were homemade.

My own attempt at making maat foong tau

As the evening approached, the tables were set up. Since there were so many of us, the adults sat at the main dining table. The children had a smaller table so we could sit together. As we grew older, the older cousins were encouraged to join the grown-up table. No takers... The kids table was more fun!

After dinner, we sometimes go outside to play with fireworks. Or we will all gather together to gamble. Oh, the noise we used to make playing Kampung 21 and Three Cards! All for 10 sen per bet! I believe a few of my cousins and myself included learned to count at the gambling sessions ;-) Some grown-ups join us and become the "banker". Occasionally, we heard "Papa"! That's our fathers' cue to top up our investment. The aunts would get together for a game of mahjong and more gossips.

Now, with my own family, there aren't many children around for Laura and Adam to play with. All my cousins and their parents who are still living have their own arrangement for CNY. I am the daughter, so am expected to "follow" my husband's side. So, I try to create the kind of environment which will be memorable for Laura and Adam. Most times Patrick's brother and his daughter would join us but not this year. Instead we will have our "extended family" over for reunion dinner. Our extended family is made up of very good friends of ours who have become like family to us. For the past few years now, I've re-created some CNY dishes from memory and added a few of my own. Some auspicious sounding and some just for the taste. This year, I plan to prepare tau yew bak (stewed pork in soy sauce) which is a favourite with our friends, lotus root soup (to symbolise longevity), jew hoo char (abundance always), hoe see fatt choy (oyster with hair seaweed, the dish sounds like good things and prosperity), sambal prawns (prawns sound like the sound of laughing in Cantonese, so hopefully the dish will bring on lots of laughter to those who eat it) and lorbak (in keeping with tradition).

Here's wishing everyone "Keong Hee Huat Chye, Seen Tei Kean Hong" (prosperity and good health in the new year)

8 Comments:

Blogger Adriene said...

gong xi fa cai to u too!

12:56 am  
Anonymous Kat said...

Keong hee huat chai to you too!! I hope you saved a more permanent copy of this post in case blogger.com ever get closed down and/or you get too old and senile to remember such details!!

Such precious memories for the kids who will probably never get to experience it.

But then again, they will have their own memories to share with their kids, eg. my parents used to actually drive cars,not fly around like you youngsters nowadays; food was actually vegetables, fish and meat those days, not the convenient little pill you get now... :lol:

1:57 am  
Blogger Min said...

I can picture it now. What in the world is "keong hee huat chye"? Must be some secret code my parents used.

Already happening in developed countries. A lot of people do not know how to deal with food that doesn't come in a package with nutrient content! Live chicken? Never seen one!

2:07 am  
Blogger Lian said...

CNY in the old days is definately more "lau juak" than now.
Looks like you will be very very busy. As for me I don't bother so much decorating my home. CNY is usually up in BM, everything already done by MIL - food, bak kua, kuih etc.... Fireworks provided by the neighbour whom my daughter has made good friends with since our last trip.
Anyway, good luck and Keong Hee Huat Chai!

10:20 am  
Blogger Min said...

Lian, there is something about "balik kampung" to celebrate which is different from being in KL. I've never known not to go out of town for CNY until I was in my 30's. Something about the madness of packing, making sure everything is in place and getting into the car for the long drive back to "kampung". Then once we're there, have to bring all the stuff down from the car (with kids it always look like we've moved everything including the kitchen sink). I remember my parents used to pack our pillows, bolster and bedsheets too. We would sleep wherever there is space. Usually one family per room. A bit like camping but not under the stars lor. Fun leh! Have fun in BM!

1:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gong Xi Fa Cai to you too. Btw, your 'mat-foong-tau' looks mouth watering delicious, kind enough to spare the recipe?

11:51 am  
Anonymous a&a'smom said...

HAPPY CNY tO YOU & FAMILY! Wow, the sounds delish! Can I come over ah?

5:10 pm  
Blogger Min said...

Anonymous, the maat-foong-tau actually tasted pretty decent but oily. I may not prepared it correctly. When I've fine-tuned it, I'll post up the recipe.

a&a'smom, you want to come over? Sure! *rolls out red carpet*

10:02 pm  

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