Tuesday, February 20, 2007

New Year Goodies

I always wonder why people go to so much effort buying new year goodies. We buy a little but the experience over the years was that our visitors tend not to bring just oranges but extra goodies as well. Not to mention gifts from neighbours and friends. We received two (2) kueh lapis, one big bag of bak kwa, assorted containers of kueh kueh.... on top of 2 boxes of oranges. Whilst it is nice to have surplus at new year the weight gain is a serious potential problem.

But the other question I have is why is it so necessary to expend precious hours standing in queue to get the bak kwa from Lim Chee Guan? I meant to go to the shop (can't rem the name) on East Coast Road, near my house (which is pretty good and I don't have to queue at all) but my aunt gave us a large packet ... so zero effort on my part. If I want Lim Chee Guan bak kwa, I go during the rest of the year when the queues are minimal.

Then there are the pineapple tarts. I was wondering whether to insert a pineapple tart recipe (from my Eurasian aunt) but the reality is that on East Coast Road there are pineapple tarts being sold at every other stall so it is probably better to just list the best sources of these delectable tarts. This year, I picked mine up at Glory on East Coast Road 2 days before CNY. Actually I forgot to buy them from Katong Antique Shop the previous week (that's when you want the quality of a homemade-by-little-old-nonya tart). Then I went to St Francis (again on East Coast Road) but they were out (for those who do not know, St Francis is not a shop run by the Catholic church. Malacca, together with Singapore and Penang, formed the Straits Settlements where the bigger peranakan communities developed. St Francis Xavier brought Catholicism to Southeast Asia, and is particularly associated with Malacca where his body rested for some time. Thus the name of the shop reflects the close association of Malacca with the Peranakan community). But I've no regrets - Glory makes a pretty mean pineapple tart despite being mass produced. The excuse I have for late purchase is that I need to buy my pineapple tarts as late as possible or else there may not be enough to serve visitors <'o'> I got my nonya agar from Glory as well since I was buying my tarts there. I ended up completely forgetting to serve it to visitors .... whoops. Guess I'll have to eat it all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Those Halcyon Days

Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!

As a child I used to enjoy Chinese New Year very much. CNY celebrations started, of course, with big reunion dinners which were typically held at one of the famous seafood restaurants on Upper East Coast/Bedok Road. Thereafter, we would go back (I believe we walked) to the big old family house where my great-grandmother, the matriach of our family, stayed. I recall that there would be some activity going on upstairs of a speculative nature :-) but of course we children were not involved.

The next day was of course the day we would all be waiting for. We would begin the day visiting my father's parents who (as would be expected of grandparents) were extremely generous and thus could be relied on to start off the day extremely well. We would then go on to my great-grandmother's house, and lunch there with other members of our extended extended family. My great-grandmother had many many children, all who congregated at her home on the first day of the New Year. I used to get slightly confused by all the uncles and aunties (my father's cousins), especially given the strong family resemblances, but it did not seem to matter as all I needed to do was to say "Gong Hee Fatt Choy" politely to everyone and of course they would bestow those red packets on me.

Lunch was chicken porridge, made by the old family servant the previous day. It was (and still is) the best chicken porridge that I have ever eaten. Soft-cooked and smooth, the porridge was full of rich flavour. The toppings and condiments were put on the side so we could season it as we wished. The grown-ups would eat, chat and catch up with the family's doings (never mind that they had already had the opportunity to do so at the previous night's reunion dinner). We children would run around the garden or jump around on the furniture downstairs. Sadly, these days are long past. Time and events have loosened the bonds of the extended family. My great grandmother's house was acquired by the government many years ago so that a road could be built to service the residents of a condominium. And our old family servant went back to China and has since passed away. And, alas, I do not have her recipe for chicken porridge.

We still continue having our reunion dinner and New Year's Day lunch with my extended family. Since we now go to a hotel for lunch, the variety of food available ranges far beyond chicken porridge (but I still miss the porridge). And I must admit that I now participate in the "grown-up" conversation. Angpows have diminished considerably in number too.

Of recent years, we have also started visiting my granduncle and his daughter (strictly speaking, my cousin once removed but who I of course call "aunty"), who have "open house" on the second day. My aunt is quite a good baker so we have a selection of delectable cakes - this year, it was rich, creamy tiramisu; sweet pear tart and zesty lemon curd pie; rich chocolate cake with a sinful creamy filling. We eat our fill, listen to my granduncle (he is 89 years, and just retired last year) and play with her huge long-haired cat. We then visit my grandaunt - a remarkable, independent-minded lady who lives on her own instead of with either of her two sons and their families. She tells us about how she spends her days, going to church, meeting and talking to people. She is 85 years old but I would not be surprised if people thought she was a good 15 years younger. She still has the perfect complexion of her youth, and if her hair is less luxuriant than of old, it is still ebony black with only a few silver threads running through. I can only hope that the family genes are still strong two generations down.

Selamat Taon Baru Babi!

We have just come back from the annual Peranakan Mass at Holy Family Church. This is the second time we have gone for the mass and I must say I rather enjoy the experience - the sight of the ladies all dressed in their beautiful sarong kebaya, the strong vigorous singing of the choir, and the challenge of following a mass said in the peranakan patois.

Singapore nonyas and babas speak "Baba Malay", a mixture of pasar Malay and Hokkien. It is fairly rudimentary Malay, but my Malay is pretty basic. So I can read the words in the mass book fairly easily, and with a little more effort, I can make out the meanings of the mass proper (knowing the English version helps). I probably paid far more attention to every word spoken, every word read than I do normally when every word is so familiar to me. But the readings were difficult to make out, and the sermon more so.

Except of course, Father Alfred Chan, the celebrant, started off his sermon with how the Perankans love the pig. Indeed, we do. It is in our babi assam, babi pongteh, babi chin, bak kwa, bak chang and so on. Of course we also love our ham and bacon. I got that bit. But then he started talking about loving one's enemy and he lost me there :-)

The congregation in the church was fairly large, considering - the pews facing the main altar were filled and about half of the pews next to the choir. I felt a little sad that I was not properly attired. I don't have a sarong kebaya and didn't want to wear a cheongsam. So the only piece of nonya clothing I wore were my beaded shoes! Perhaps by next year I will get my act together and buy myself a kebaya.

The mass ended with the singing of Auld Lang Syne (in patois of course) and the distribution of oranges. After mass, everyone gathered around Father Chan to wish him a Happy New Year and so on. (Father Chan spent a long time in Holy Family parish so he has a lot of friends here.) People stay around to greet each other and to exchange new year greetings. And that is another aspect of the mass I like - the more intimate, community spirit prevailing throughout..


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