Happy Year of the Tiger!

The Chinese New Year begins on Feb. 14th and continues for 15 days.

Where I grew up, in Malaysia and Singapore, we had lots of Chinese neighbors and this festival, along with Hari Raya Puasa (the Muslim Eid festival), 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 visit someone if you knew them.

My late Granddad’s best friend, Uncle Guan (which was actually his first name), was Peranakan Chinese. The term refers to descendants of late 15th and 16th century immigrants to the Indonesian islands, who partially or fully adopted the local customs and style of dress and developed their own hybrid of Nyonya, or Baba Chinese cuisine.

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 their joint children, 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 (getting into Big Love territory here, aren’t we?)

My Granddad and Uncle Guan had forged a strong and tight friendship from World War II days, when Malaysia was occupied by Japanese forces. They would sit and chat for hours on end in Malay, which is similar to Bahasa Indonesia. Although between them, they must have spoken 8 or 9 languages, this was the only one common to them, neither possessed first-language familiarity with it. I found this incredible, and charming, as they still got their messages across 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 very beginnings of their friendship are still unknown to me. 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, who were a much smaller minority than the Chinese, apparently posed less of a threat to the colonialists at the time.

After the war, Uncle Guan started a ritual of including my Granddad and his entire family, comprising kids and grandchildren, in the Teo family’s Chinese new year reunion dinner, held on the eve of the new year. Traditionally, this party is strictly for family only, so we were very honored indeed.

Their dinners were an astounding and memorable affair, a multi-sensory feast of fifteen to twenty dishes. In my child’s mind, it resembled all the wedding feasts 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 fish, roast chicken and duck, longevity noodles and my favorite, something known as a yam cake. This was a steamed pudding of meat and yam, marinated with ginger and other spices, and wrapped in a mysterious skin which I believe could have been beancurd.  For afters, the one key thing we children always looked forward to, and could never get enough of, were Mrs Teo and Mrs Guan’s homemade pineapple jam tarts.

And finally, 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).

Now, if there’s anyone out there to whom this yam cake sounds familiar, please tell me its name and what the skin is made of as it’s been impossible to find out. Offer me a recipe, and I may have to instate you as permanent guest at reunion dinners of my own!

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 there you have it!

  • 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)

  1. In a wok, saute, in the sesame oil with a bit of sunflower seed oil, the ginger, garlic, leek and onions till fragrant
  2. Add the mushrooms, cabbage and flavorings
  3. Stir fry quickly, till just done
  4. Take it off the heat
  5. 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.
  6. Dumplings may be steamed in a bamboo or stainless steel steamer for 8 minutes, or fried in oil
  7. 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!)