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.
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.
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 were 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.