Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Looking forward to a baa-d-ass new year

Chinese New Year is upon us, and this year in particular, the Year of the Goat or Sheep, seems extra festive to me. Perhaps it's because my son, B, is working in Singapore and will be back for a few days. Maybe it's a sense that I won't be celebrating too many more years of the Sheep, in the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese years. For whatever reason, I'm looking forward to a number of days of festivities, all of which revolve around my all-time favorite thing, food!

The couple of years after my mother passed away were pretty quiet ones for my son, B, and me. Our already shrinking family lost its matriarch and the rest of us were, well, quite disconnected. Fortunately my friends, P and F, invited us to join their family in their reunion dinner, and since then we have gratefully attached ourselves to their large clan for some food, family and fun.

Among the Chinese, especially the Cantonese speaking, every dish cooked for the reunion dinner holds special significance. Prawns are prized, because in Cantonese, the word for prawn is "ha"  like in laughter and is a harbinger of happiness. Dried oysters or "ho see" sounds like good fortune. I'm no linguist, but all these dishes are among my favorites and we try to incorporate them into the dinner menu.

In years past, we've done a potluck at P and F's house, and I've contributed a chicken soup that has all kinds of goodies in it including dried oysters, scallops and mushrooms, fish balls and loads of vegetables. Dinner begins with a tossing of "yee sang" a salad of various vegetables and sashimi fish. This is for good luck and is especially meaningful when you hear the accompanying recitation in Cantonese of all the ingredients and what they signify. None of us in our group is any good at it, but we tuck in with gusto nevertheless.

This year, because P and F's house is still under renovation and we're limited by the kitchen facilities in their rented abode, we've decided to have steamboat instead, a dish that, strangely enough, has nothing to do with either steam or a boat. It's the Malaysian version of a hotpot, where all kinds of goodies go into a hot broth to cook at the table. What's critical in this dish is the broth itself. Some make it by boiling pork or chicken bones. Others use a seafood stock. I prefer to make mine by boiling soybeans and adding dried scallops for flavor.

Mayhem at the market
F, her daughter B and I have decided to hit the market the day before the reunion dinner. We kid ourselves that it won't be as crowded, but, as I've discovered in years past, no matter how many days before Chinese New Year, and how early I get to the market, it will be packed with housewives and aunties, all there to pick up the freshest ingredients. Prices are all jacked up, especially for premium items like prawns and fish, but for the Chinese, nothing is more important than putting on a good spread for the reunion dinner. And so everyone shops in a frenzy and although the mood is light-hearted, some of the aunties are in deadly earnest when it comes to picking up their required produce. I've had run ins with some of them who can be quite ruthless in wresting away what they think is a better head of lettuce from you, all of this happening in the pre-dawn hours before 7am!

It's all in good fun, and maybe it's old age, but I do appreciate some of these customs and traditions more and more. It's a way of keeping up with my heritage, and a great way to connect with friends who have, in effect, become family. Happy New Year of the Goat (or Sheep) everyone!

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Tossing of "yee sang" for good luck
Home-made steamboat with lots of goodies

1 comment: