The Food of My Memories

I truly enjoyed and appreciated this Chinese New Year – without the mad rush to get air tickets to Kuching, we took things a little bit easy and had a more laidback celebration with ourselves, with my parents and sisters, and with my grandma, aunts and uncles.
This year, no one was going to slave over a hot kitchen, or so I thought. That was why my youngest uncle decided to invite all of us out for a sit-down 8-course dinner on Tuesday night at this Chinese restaurant along Logan Road, opposite Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre. Even so, the restaurant was packed and bustling! Later I heard that the restaurant will be operating throughout the CNY – it goes to show the kind of demand in Penang for food and feasting!
Anyway, my aunts still cooked on Wednesday after because they needed dishes for prayers at the home altar. In the end, everyone sat down for another round of dinner which actually resembled a proper reunion dinner, minus the noise.
I was still busy cleaning my apartment till the very last minute – but then I reasoned, who really cares if there’s dust or dirt? I mean, I can clean as much as I can but dust will still settle somehow somewhere. So I did my best but really, will anyone penalize me if there’s a mote of dust under the bed?
Sometimes I also wonder: what’s all the rush all about? When I was a kid, the rush was for ‘balik kampung’. In those days, I lived in Banting and CNY is always celebrated in Penang. For me, that was the ultimate prize – packing our bags, getting into my dad’s car and making that long, hot, crazy drive (on trunk roads no less) to get back to Penang. When we spied the Penang Bridge from afar, we’d all get excited and couldn’t wait to see our cousins, aunts, uncles and Grandma.
The thrill was the anticipation of the drive up to Penang, of thinking of our new dresses and of course, the ang pows we’d be getting. I admit, the money was so important to me then. We cousins were in a race to see who could amass the most ang pow money.
The thrill these days is to meet with family and friends, people we have not seen for a while, and to catch up. Even the food, in my opinion, isn’t that important anymore. Especially when we can all afford all the abalone, oysters, fish maw, etc. (My cousin and I retreated to her room to talk and talk when the buzz of the relatives got a bit too much for us to bear. These were the extended family – my dad’s cousins and their kids. The best moments were just lying on the cool marble floor of her room and chatting! That to me personified a good CNY moment.)
In the end, it is the experiences which we hold on to. Even when we reminisce about food, it is always tied to the memories and experiences of that time when we were partaking in the food.
Just the other day, as we were lunching on the first day of CNY at my Grandma’s, we spoke about my Grandma’s favourite vegetarian dishes. In my mother-in-law’s house, everyone was vegetarian on the first day of CNY. It was a must. We could be having vegetarian meehoon or vegetarian fried rice.
In my grandma’s house, she was the only one who took vegetarian food on the first day of CNY. She often cooked a few dishes for herself while she made meat dishes for us all. (Many older Chinese folks observe vegetarianism on the 1st and 15th day of the Chinese Lunar Calender.)
Two of those dishes were re-created this CNY by my aunt for her husband. He too missed the vegetarian food my Grandma used to prepare. One was a simple dish of stir-fried salted black beans with julienned young ginger. It is such a simple dish yet one full of flavour. The other was stir-fried black olives which is an acquired taste. Eating these two dishes with warm rice was an experience. It reminded me of my Grandma – she’s too feeble to cook now; she’s forgotten too many things now. She now needs to be cared for like a baby but the dishes were a beautiful reminder of what CNY was like before.
Cantonese folks don’t do steamboat for reunion dinners like the Hokkiens – we prefer to have our dishes with happy symbolisms. So the table is laden with dishes like prawns, chicken, pork, colourful vegetables and soup. The signature soup of the reunion dinner (at least in my Grandma’s house) is the “tuu thor th’ng” or pig stomach soup, an incredibly delicious soup made with pig stomach, gingko nuts, water chestnuts, peppercorns (lots of it!) and pork bones. Every family has its own version of this soup. This is the food of my memories. In my own family, we often served a tangy yet tongue-searing prawn kerabu to offset the cloying meat dishes. I miss that kerabu!
I am such a traditionalist when it comes to CNY. I think I’m getting old. I love sit-down dinners at home. Restaurants may serve tasty course dinners but nothing beats the idea of a home-cooked meal because that is totally priceless. Restaurants are impersonal, the waiters can be off-putting sometimes (can’t blame them, they are overworked souls on busy days) and everyone has their own opinion about each dish.
What did you have for CNY? What food reminds you of your family?

2 thoughts on “The Food of My Memories”

  1. Gong Hey Fatt Choy!
    My grandma used to make tuu thor th’ng for us too! Not exactly my favorite when I was a kid, but there were plenty of other delicacies to stuff myself. Coming from a hawkers family, it was always a feast with more than an 8-course meal.
    We stopped having reunion at my grandma’s in recent years as my mom took over the cooking task for my family. It is now steamboat as our yearly tradition, but there’s always one or two more nyonya dishes as an addition. I can imagine how different it’d be to have reunion at a restaurant.
    I hope the home-cooked meal tradition will last. Our generation needs to decide.

    • Reese – Gong Hei Fatt Choy to you too! Yup, I believe nothing beats a homecooked meal. Sure it is time-consuming but there’s an oddly pleasurable satisfaction in serving family with love and that is why reunion dinners should always be upheld, no matter where we are or what we do. Restaurants are convenient but really, there isn’t much love in the food, is there? 😉 Come on over with Mark if you have time.

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