As I write this, it is the last few hours of Chap Goh Meh, the 15th and last day of the Chinese New Year celebrations. We ushered in the Year of the Monkey and it’s been a significant Chinese New Year for me for various reasons.
- I was born in the year of the monkey, so it’s my year so to speak. And call me suspicious, but it feels like it’s going to be a good one (Amen!). I am slowly trying to ‘put myself forwards’ and build something for myself and whilst I’ve been talking about it for quite some time now, I am really hoping this will be the year I actually get going.
- This year, my mother came to spend Chinese New Year with us here in London and it’s the first time that my boys have had their Nana here to celebrate with them.
For me, Chinese New Year has always been a time for family and I have wonderful memories of celebrating with my extended relatives. It was our version of Christmas when I was growing up and I remember the crackle of excitement and anticipation in the build-up to it. My (very many) cousins and I would count down to the eve of the Eve, as that was when everyone would brave the traffic queues and make the journey back to my grandmother/uncle’s house for the celebrations. In my father’s hometown, we would all squeeze into the various relatives’ houses (no such thing as sleeping ‘away’ in a hotel then), squashing 4 to a bed, and sleeping on spare mattresses, sofas and whatever other flat surfaces available. Usually, these were redundant arrangements anyway as the grown-ups would stay up half the night doing last minute preparations while all the children would do the same, chatting and playing games, and as we got older, with fireworks.
As for the food! Flavourful braised chicken with dried shiitake mushrooms. Steamed, fresh silver pomfret with aromatic slivers of ginger, chili and coriander. Huge prawns in delectable sauces. Fragrant curries. Colourful stir-fried vegetables with dried abalone. The list just goes on. In the latter years, as my father and his siblings grew older and the children all grew up and moved away, the Chinese New Year Reunion Dinners were usually held in restaurants. But my favourite times were when I was very little. When dinner was announced, we would all, 30 or so of us, file into my uncle’s little house, pile our plates high and scrabble into various nooks and crannies in the house to feast on the simple but mouth-watering delicacies that my uncle and aunt had worked so hard to prepare. I still remember one occasion, sitting with my cousin on the swing under his porch, trying to eat while simultaneously balancing my laden plate on my knees and fending off their over-excitable dog. Good times! These are some of the best memories I have of my childhood.
With this in mind, I have tried to do the same for my children. To fill the house with voices and laughter and loving faces during this auspicious time of year. And not forgetting,the good food of course.
As I mentioned earlier, this year was extra special as Nana was here to celebrate with us. The stars aligned themselves even further for us this year, as CNY eve fell on a Sunday and we managed to have our ‘reunion’ on the actual day. In the last 3 years, it has become a tradition for me to make ‘yee sang’, a delightful raw fish salad that is not only tasty, but also brimming with ingredients to signify the abundance of luck, prosperity and auspiciousness in the household for the coming year. This was followed by a hotpot meal. Starting with a hearty chicken stock that I brew from the early part of the day, to which, during the meal, we add whatever ingredients we fancy (we had tiger prawns, beef, mushrooms, and tofu to name a few)… dunking them into the gently simmering soup and fishing them out with little nets as they cook, to be eaten immediately with a variety of tasty dips. It is quite a communal meal, consumed at a leisurely pace over several hours of chatter and many cups of drink. It is therefore quite appropriate for celebrating Chinese New Year with friends and family and symbolising its communal significance. Not to mention, the children usually take immense delight in ‘catching’ their own dinner and are happy to eat whatever they catch in their little golden nets. When all the ingredients are gone, or when the guests cannot eat another morsel; whichever comes first, we are left with a rich, sweet soup that is perfect for pouring over noodles, symbols of longevity in Chinese culture. And finally, because I am always convinced that there isn’t enough food, we also made butter (tiger) prawns to be eat with steamed rice. Suffice to say that we were very, very full that evening and had plenty of leftovers for the days to come. But hey, surely a full tummy and an abundance of leftovers are simply excellent signs of overflowing riches in the year to come?
Kung Hei Fatt Choy! May the Monkey dance in, bringing you prosperity, health and happiness.