Archive for April, 2009

Chinese New Year

Another high point in the trip was the celebration of Chinese New Year in my grandparents’ home. They have an amazing cook who has been with them for years. What is most remarkable about this woman is the kitchen she cooks in. To the left of the “kitchen” is the backyard, while the real kitchen/dining area is to the right.  She makes the best curry crab–sweet, spicy and savory–as well as a wide array of soups.  I think soups are a true test of culinary skill.  Soups can be horrible if not done correctly.  I personally hate making soups because there is a ridiculously fine line between melding flavors and boiling everything to an indistinguishable mush.  Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for gifted soup makers.img_21121

Chinese New Year is quite an affair in my grandparents’ home.  All six of their children come home, bringing along spouses and children (and even grandchildren).  The house buzzes with an excitement that builds up for several days, culminating in a seven-course feast on the night of the lunar new year.  On new year’s day, I woke up to the sounds of a kitchen crew who had set up shop in the backyard.  During breakfast I learned that my grandparents had hired a professional chef who specializes in traditional Chinese New Year foods.  The preparations commenced early in the morning and continued late into the day.  As fragrant aromas wafted through the open-air house, I grew childishly impatient and ran out with my camera.  The end result was worth the wait.  We had the best fried chicken I have ever tasted, and I regret dearly not eating more of as soon as it came out of its oil bath.  I had forgotten that fried foods are best straight out of the oil.  The longer they sit, the more the scale tips in favor of health rather than taste.  It was a good lesson for me to learn; I remember the deep disappointment I felt eating the cold fried chicken when it was finally served at the end of the meal.  To paraphrase Uncle Alex’s wise words in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, half of a child’s fun is having it when she wants it. Instead I had chosen to save my appetite, sadly restraining myself from joining the group that had gathered around the table of freshly fried chicken.  Good food brings people together, and I still remember the image of aunts, uncles, cousins and children happily chomping away.   img_21491


Meatballs were made by the millions, and  I forget what they were used for.  I watched as the kitchen crew cranked them out in rapid-fire fashion.  Honestly I was more excited in the fishcakes shown before.  If you know me well, you would know that I love fishcakes.  Even when I hated fish as a child, I inhaled fish balls and fish cakes.  I suppose this seeming contradiction can be seen in children who prefer grape-flavored candy to others but detest grapes.  I liked fish flavor early on, but it took a while for me to appreciate fish.  I think this makes perfect sense since other factors including texture, odor and appearance are involved in determining whether or not a food is palatable.  I remember hearing that we take our first “bite” of a new dish using our eyes.  The rolls of fish, crab or a mixture of both are sliced on the diagonal and then deep-fried.  I had them several times during this trip, but my favorite was my first experience.  Those specific ones img_21172img_21481were coated in something similar to puff-pastry, and the flaky outer shell was a good contrast to the dense, cake-like interior.  They are served with the sweet and spicy dipping sauce that accompanies most deep-fried foods.

The other dishes included sea cucumber, steamed chicken, shark fin soup, shrimp, lime duck and sweet sticky rice with dates, ginger and nuts.  I do not remember the food much, but I do remember the tiny shreds of red paper that flew into our plates, by-products of the firecrackers going off next door.  I remember the secret satisfaction my grandparents took in continuing to provide so abundantly for their grown children.  I remember receiving my blessing and hong bao, and I remember thinking, “This is what it feels like to come home.”

By the way, the mystery picture in the previous post is an image of palm seeds!  I am told that they are used to dye clothes, which is not surprising due to their brilliant color.  Thank you for reading.  Your comments are encouraging and greatly appreciated.


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I had the pleasure of spending Chinese New Year with my extended family this past January. My mom and I landed in Kuala Lumpur International Airport but spent all of our time in Melaka, where her oldest sister resides. We headed out one morning to try roti, a traditional Malay breakfast food. I had roti in Thailand, which was dough cooked in lard and sprinkled with mass amounts of sugar. Malay roti was much differently, thankfully, which I much prefer   I think the Malays have a sweet version also, but I tried the savory version. The red sauce is called sambal, a spicy chili paste that I preferred to the soupy curry provided with the roti. I also enjoyed a cup of Malay tea with my meal.
We left for Thailand after only one full day in Malaysiaas we were pressed for time.  My mom’s hometown is a quiet place somewhere far away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. I love visiting my grandsparents
‘ house because the kitchen is the center of the home. I have wonderful memories sitting around the circle table, talking, eating and laughing late into the night. Every Saturday, however, there is an open air market, and the one main street comes alive. It is by no means comparable to the night bazaar in Chiang Mai or Bangkok’s famous street vendors, but it is a big deal in this small town.

One of the best memories of my trip was the visit to my mom’s childhood house. It is located in the same town, but another family lives there now. The area surrounding the modest home is basically farmland, and I watched as my mom and her brother became children, laughingly reminiscing on the old days when they picked fruit and wild berries from the backyard. My mom tells me I am lucky I have never had to walk to an outhouse in the middle of the dark in order to relieve myself. I agree with her, but I am secretly jealous of the simple fun her family shared. My doctor uncle calls me over to look at what the Thai call a “bashful” plant, an enchanted shrub that shrivels up when touched. I become the child now, and I am fascinated, lost in the universal world of imagination we are granted access into as children but eventually leave as adults, not because we are forced out but because of more img_19975“real” interests and demands.   Thus entranced by the treasures promised by the world of grownups, we willingly trade our childish toys for burdens and responsbility masquerading as “freedom” and “maturity.”  “Open your mouth!” my mom says, snapping me out of my reverie, and I, bewildered, obey. She pops a what appears to be a half-inch twig into my waiting mouth and presses my lips together so that half of it sticks out. “What am I suppo–” I try to ask, but she shushes me as only my mother can, and I obediently close my mouth. In a few seconds, I let out a shriek of surprise. The stick had popped open in my mouth, snapping against the tip of my tongue. My mom and uncle laugh at me, and I can only stand there staring at them, too amused to ask why my mom would do such a thing to her beloved daughter. I choose to remain silent, not wanting to remind them that I am the intruder in this sacred place of childhood memories, for I am but a grateful visitor.

Does anyone know what the orange objects are on the left?  I was very surprised when I found out.  Long as this post was, those of you who know me well will not be surprised in the least to know that there is more.  Chinese New Year in my grandparents’ home is quite an occasion, and I want to dedicate a post entirely to that affair.

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