My mother worked herself silly in the lead of to the Year of the Dragon. Over the last 50 years, as far as I can remember, mom has put on a splendid feast for our family. On Chinese New Year Day, if there is nothing else in the shops to eat, chances are if you came to our house in Klang, you can get a very decent meal of mushrooms and chicken, cooked-to-perfection curry, sea cucumber braised with pork leg, fish maw stewed with meat balls and bamboo shoot.
Mom doesn’t do things in bits and pieces. She is not into modest spreads. Besides feasting on her amazing food, what I treasure most is the tradition she has left me. I know as we evolve, our culture and tradition take on their own shape-shifting. Just as Christmas is not complete with Christmas pudding, for me, Chinese New Year is not complete without pineapple tarts! I miss mom’s cooking and her disproportionately ambitious spreads.
I don't have the time to recreate all the dishes mom showed me how to make. What I try to do is recreate some of the things I love. I make pineapple tarts once a year, just to remind myself there is great torture in the labour-intensive process but there is also wondrous satisfaction that comes having extended a bit of an old knowledge that relied mostly on tacit know-how. You can can't tell a person who has never made pineapple jam how to spot a jam that's about to cook. Over the last two years, I have made love letters (kuih kapit), an ultra wafer-like crisp made from rice flour, eggs and coconut milk. I burnt my fingers making these slim biscuits, rang mom a few times to chat about the results. I am please with my effort to keep mom’s knowledge alive.
Over the last 5 years a group of us Malaysian and NZ-Chinese have gotten together to celebrate Chinese New Year. We give the kids a $2-token sum of Ang Pow (red packet) to remind them of the Chinese tradition of wishing your elders longevity and happiness and health. My kid, like all kids, is more interested in the money and how much she can stash up. I am sure over time, when she gets older, the tradition will sink in – she will realise wishing someone longevity is akin to spreading hope and positive potential. She will realise what she has experienced is something uniquely hers, it might be buried and hidden but can be nurtured and extended far into the future.
We don’t stop often enough to celebrate our culture and its nourishing effect on our soul. Traditions not only give us a distinctive flavour. Traditions bind us to a past which has become increasingly hard to define in a world whose dominant culture is globalisation of brands and consumer offerings. Without the anchor of our tradition, we are set up to be driftwoods in a global world that’s increasingly amorphous yet ambitious in its zest for same-ness and hegemony.
While our children sit in front of their computers, ipods hooked onto their ears, fingers fast flying over their face booking activity, it is good to know we can give them what it means to be who we are by the simple act of getting once a year to feast on familiar homemade food our moms used to make and to enjoy the happiness brought by friends and the good fortune of health and happiness.