Haven’t been home for Chinese New Year since 2013 so I was really happy to be back! You don’t know you’re homesick until you see the insane amount of food your family consume in just a few days plus getting to see extended family and family friends you haven’t seen all year PLUS red packets!
As soon as I found out I would be heading back, mum and I planned the perfect ruse to surprise everyone back home who weren’t expecting me, particularly my grandmother. I started by planting sad messages in our family group chat.
Then we decided to up the ante a bit more after I arrived in Malaysia. I Whatsapp-called my grandma (which was actually a little complicated, involving tethering 3G from mum’s phone as I had no network) when we were en route to her place. There was a minor setback when we realised that my grandma wasn’t actually home but we turned that into an opportunity for me to wait at her place and then she’d have a big surprise coming home. I ended up hiding in her mah jong room while waiting for her to finish up at her chiropractor. Upon arrival, the maid gestured for her to come towards the kitchen ‘Tengok mem, piring baru cantik/Mum look, the new plates are really pretty’ so I could present myself. In the moments leading up to it, I began to wonder whether she would be pleasantly surprised or if I was about to giving my 70 year old grandmother a heart attack.
Thankfully all she did was cry 😉
With my added relatives from Indonesia, our reunion dinner easily pushes into the twenty something numbers. Reunion dinners are a pretty big deal and can turn out to be the most extravagant meal of the whole Chinese New Year affair. I believe it’s meant to signify when all the relatives return to their hometowns the night before the first day of new year.
Our yee sang this year is from Erawan, a pretty sweet Thai place located in Kota Damansara. I know what you’re thinking but honestly yee sang is all Malaysians have on their brain during this particular festive season so if your restaurant needs to cobble together some semblance of one if you want business over the two weeks! Erawan more than outdid themselves with this one. It’s just a little bit fancy this year with 68 different ingredients in this plus their sauce which apparently has a Thai twist to it. I had three helpings of this, it was a tad on the dry side but the fresh and abundant flavours more than made up for it.
I love yee sang and I’m really proud that it’s very much a South East Asian Chinese tradition. The communal spirit that you cultivate through digging through it with 20 different sets of chopsticks is really something else. Typically the head of the family leads the group by saying good/auspicious things over the yee sang while we mix it. Onward to the rest of dinner!
Jiu hu char, another medley of ingredients. My grandma makes the undisputed best jiu hu char on the planet. I know visually it doesn’t look like much (and you might think it’s some sang choy bow cousin) but it’s got a crazy amount of textures going for it plus that earthy mushroom flavour and just a hint of sweetness from the yambean. The main ingredients are the aforementioned yambean, cuttlefish and some kind of meat (usually pork, but we get chicken). The rest are just shredded up vegetables like carrot, maybe cabbage and mushrooms. My grandma’s top tip is to manually slice all of these with a knife. she doesn’t believe in using shredders because she claims too much water is lost when you use that, resulting in a very watery jiu hu char.
Indonesian fish cakes. Despite my usual disdain for deep fried foods, I think I had about five or six of these.
Pak cham kai or Chinese poached chicken. Another joy to the table, we always manage to get it steamed to the point of perfect succulence.
Kon shuin har or dry sweet prawns with cuttlefish. Really messy to eat but the flesh is so plump and you can only imagine how packed with flavour the heads must be.
Sweet and sour fish might sound super Western but it’s one of my stepdad’s favourite things to eat. Particularly the version with Mandarin fish because there’s maximum crispy skin surface area.
Lastly, a Hakka dish known as poon choi or big bowl cuisine. My family isn’t Hakka but this is one of those dishes that you’re meant to eat together as a family. The idea of a shared dish with different ingredients is meant to promote unity and gratitude for the family.
I’m really grateful for my friends in Sydney who appreciate a good meal and for the extended family I have here in Sydney also. Without them, dining in or out would be a pretty solitary experience and a far cry to how I grew up eating. Sydney has a fantastic dining culture and no limited to the amount of wonderful restaurants but nothing can beat food made back home in Malaysia.