One of the family memories of past Chinese New Years must be the Reunion Dinners. For many of us, greeting the Chinese New Year (CNY) is incomplete without enjoying the delicious traditional family dishes with all in the extended family. There must be many 3G or 4G (4th generation) in each extended family. With the world getting smaller, sometimes, it is tough to get all together. Some members of the family must be somewhere in the other parts of the world.
For many, especially the mothers, working towards the CNY could have started from Winter Solstice. Although one is based on the solar calendar and the other, the lunar calendar, the difference of the number of days between the two events are in matter of days.
Spring cleaning is a ritual in the old days, especially in the old pre-war houses, when the entire community (tenants and landlord) within the house would clean. The date could be set by the landlord, as in our case (and in our case, it was the landlady). Then, mothers started worrying on the thousands of things to do, from ingredients for the grand CNY Eve Reunion to the new clothings for the kids, and yes, new bedding, window and door curtains. And yes, an appropriate to clean the altar for the family Gods. For some tradition, the small shrines for Tian Guan - Heaven Official in the Taoism (most people think as Tian Gong - Jade Emperor) would be changed.
Each family has its own favourite traditional dishes. I was lucky to enjoy the Hokkien dishes from Mum and Cantonese dishes from my (late) mother-in-law. There are possibly some dishes that are common to most families and definitely some unique to each family.
For my Hokkien tradition, our favourites (and these days, the grandchildren would hint and ask Grandma to prepare them) are Kiam Chye Ark (Duck with Pickled Mustard Green Soup), Peppery Pig Stomach with Gingko soup, Deep fried prawns in batter (akin to Tempura), Trotters with Sea Cucumber and a curry dish! There is the ubiquitous Hokkien Noodles (using flat noodles). And yes, there could be steam boat where more ingredients need to be bought before hand, especially the dried ones. Ah, once a year (then and maybe now too), there should be the "Chia Loon" (as the folks would describe it) Abalone from Mexico.
In the old days, it would mean waking up early to slaughter the duck and chicken in preparing for the dishes. These days, one buy freshly slaughtered ducks and chickens from the wet market. In the early days, it also meant going to the wet market to buy chicken and ducks live to bring home and fattened up before the big day. This could be a week or two before. I remember everyone was feeling up the chicken (wondering if they were trying to find how fat or think it is) before buying. I remember that in those days, we have to negotiate with the ducks (which were more noisy) and chicken when going to the toilet, as it was the most convenient place to put them. For little boys, they were always warned to be careful of the ducks (probably worst if it is the goose). How to fatten up the chickens, we kids then believed cockroaches were great meals for them and so we went catching them.
From one, I have to help in the slaughtering of the chicken and duck. It mean either Mum or I will hold the chicken by the head and body, leaving the exposed neck for the kill. Nothing is to be wasted, and so the blood was drained to a bowl to be part of another dish. Alas, these days, we have to travel aboard to enjoy the chicken or duck blood. Defeathering the chicken, and especially the duck, is a tedious process. Hot water was used to enable easier defeathering and as kids, we were tasked to pluck all the fine feathers.
Duck is often for the sea cumber dish but because we were to make offerings to the Gods and Ancestors, like the chicken, it is boiled or steamed. With other dishes, all these have to be completed by late morning so that offering could start, before noon. It is believed that offerings must be made before noon.
In almost every major event, the ancestors are always part of the celebration or commemoration. In this way, we also expressed our thanks to our departed loved ones and ancestors, for without them, we won't be here. In current times, many of the ancestral tablets have been moved to temples and so, there would be the additional time to bring the food to the temple.
Lunch would be simple and most work remained to be done, and in Grandma's home, she will wait for all her children, grand-children, and in many cases, great-grand-children to come for dinner. Dinner becomes a noisy affair as family members catch up with updates. For some, it could be "introduction" or re-introductions of the newly added family members. It is always a challenge for the newly weds to see how they could now join two Reunion Dinners. By tradition and custom, the daughter-in-law is expected to be at the reunion dinner on CNY eve. And so some compromises have to be in place, early dinner in one? These days, one can hear one having reunion dinners as early as one week before CNY! Some families opt for reunion dinners in the restaurants, especially those who are working. Save one from the tedious task of preparing and, worst, cleaning up.
In the old days, Grandma not only think about the reunion dinner dishes. She probably tried to make some traditional cakes as well. And yes, the tidbits for the New Year Day for the visitors. For the Hokkiens, the traditional cakes, made by steaming after much hard beating of the dough, are the Kuey Nern Ko (Egg cakes), Huat Kueh (cake with yeast) and Ti Kueh (sweet cake, more commonly known these days as Nian Gao). In preparing the Huat Kueh, grandma was very pantang (in Malay meaning superstitious in the most liberal translation but not actually so) that no one make remarks such as whether the cakes would form properly. Kids love to ask all kinds of questions, especially challenging ones such as "what if .. "
Come New Year day, usually, there is almost no cooking. For most, the food left over would be eaten, and to many, they taste even better. I love my overnight Kiam Chye Ark. It has become a tradition in our extended family to have Mee-Sua with chicken.