The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Malaysian food - Part 2: Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a big occasion for the Malaysian Chinese, and my own family is no exception. One of the reasons for our trip to Malaysia was to celebrate Chinese New Year with my extended family, and like many special occasions, it involved a lot of food! Unfortunately for us, we arrived a couple of days into the New Lunar Year, and stayed with my family for only 3 days, which meant a short celebration for us.

A bit about my father's heritage...

My father's family belong to the Heng Hwa dialect group which originates from Putian in the province of Fujian in the south-east of China. In general, the Heng Hwas form a relatively minor dialect group of the Chinese population in Malaysia (the major groups include the Cantonese, Hokkiens and Teochews), but it has always seems to me that there is a large number in my dad's hometown of Kajang. My extended family on my dad's side is so large that I haven't met most of them, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if I'm somehow related to all the Heng Hwa population in Kajang. I was brought up speaking English so I understand very, very little of my dad's dialect, and needless to say I feel very awkward and foreign whenever I visit Kajang.

The day after we arrived in Malaysia (which was the second day of the new year), one my dad's sisters visited my dad's place and invited us to a casual celebratory lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I was surprised that they managed to find a restaurant that was running at this time of the year! So here we were, dining in a restaurant with a group of relatives of whom half I have never met before. Food was fantastic, if not a bit oily, but it was the festive season so we all had an excuse for some unhealthy eating! If I recall correctly, it was an 8 or 9 course meal, featuring typical New Year's dishes like yam basket, fish, noodles and meat of various types. I didn't take photos of all the dishes because I was too busy eating :P

Some of the dishes at the lunch. First shot: that's the yam basket on the far left. It's basically a basket made out of yam that has been deep fried and filled with yummy stuff. Second shot: big deep-fried fish. Funny story - I was the first one brave enough to grab the fish head to munch on (many amused looks from my relatives and other diners). After a while, a couple of my aunties joined in.:

... and a bit about my mother's

As mentioned in my previous post, my mother's heritage is the Nonya Baba from Malacca. Due to fusion of many cultures (Chinese, Malay, Portugese, Dutch and British, just to name a few), the food belonging to this cuisine is vast, varied and very delicious (don't even get me started on the Nonya kuih (cakes)!) Unfortunately, I don't know how to cook any of the Nonya dishes. As a kid, I was always keen to help out in the kitchen but my mother was never too eager to let any of the kids near the stove so I was given boring tasks to do like cutting the onion or washing the dishes. Before I moved out of home several years ago, I watched my mum cook her delicious chicken curry and that is the extent of my ability to cook anything remotely resembling a Nonya dish.

We stayed at my auntie's house near Kuala Lumpur, where she was hosting a homecooked dinner held in honour of my grandmother's birthday. This side of the family had already celebrated Chinese New Year at a reunion dinner in a proper Chinese restaurant on the eve a few days prior, so I'm sure no one would have bothered with this homecooked dinner if Rob and I weren't visiting from Japan. For that, I am grateful to those who turned up for this dinner - about 20 of my uncles, aunties and cousins from my mother's side. I am also grateful to my uncle who single-handedly cooked all of the delicious dishes (with preparation help from my grandmother and aunties).

Dishes that night included traditional Nonya food like Ayam & Babi Pongteh (chicken and pork stewed in a preserved/fermented soy bean paste similar to miso paste), Chicken & Potato Curry, and Assam Pedas Fish (a sour and spicy curry dish made with assam jawa (tamarind pulp) and belacan) as well as duck soup, pan-fried pomphret, sweet and sour fish and various vegetable dishes. It was a lot of food, even for 20 people, but they were all delicious.

The spread on the table. The pongteh dish is the dark brown one, the curry is the orange dish and the assam fish is the rich dark red one:

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