Cooking up a big CNY lunch to feed 30
66 year-old Mdm Diana Khoo certainly looks energetic for her age as she busies herself baking a wide assortment of Chinese New Year cookies and cakes, while shopping for fresh ingredients to prepare a big lunch feast on the first day of Chinese New Year, happening on 8 February this year.
Mdm Khoo, who works as a cook in a boutique hotel in Singapore, traditionally cooks up a big feast for about 30 family members and relatives every Chinese New Year, and this year is no different. Together with her retired husband, Mr Richard Lim, who is the eldest among 6 siblings, they will host a home-cooked lunch feast for their siblings, nephews, nieces, and their spouses and children.
Relatives to the Lim household know better to keep their bellies empty as they will be stuffed with lots of delicacies by the time they stagger out of Mdm Khoo’s flat in Eunos Crescent. Among Mdm Khoo’s hand-made CNY cookies are traditional ones such as the quintessential pineapple tarts and the white-coloured coconut-based kueh bangkit, as well as different flavoured cookies such as cashew nuts, cornflakes or chocolate chips. Then there are cakes such as the kueh lapis, a multi-layered cake that is very laborious in the making but Mdm Khoo’s end-product is one that is rich, moist and bouncy in texture. A real tea-time treat!
So what’s on the lunch menu on 8th February?
Relatives will be treated to a sweet welcome with red date and longan tea before they are ushered in “batches” for lunch. This year, lunch would include chicken curry, hei zho (prawn rolls) & ngoh hiang (fried spring rolls with stuffings of minced pork, shrimps and water chestnuts), a mixed vegetable dish, and a braised dish of pork, tau pok (a variety of fried beancurd) and hard-boiled eggs.
One can imagine the amount of work Mdm Khoo has to put in to feed the entourage of 30 guests. Work on the cookies and cakes start weeks earlier with Mr Lim helping out, while cooking the lunch starts a day earlier with Mdm Khoo preparing the fillings for the ngoh hiang and rolling them together.
As she said, “Chinese New Year is a good opportunity to gather everyone to catch up on the latest happenings in our lives, and what better way than the Singaporean way of doing it over a meal.” (Well, make it a BIG meal at that!)
We’re not sure about you, but we are hungry already!
Celebrating CNY, overseas-style
Mr Lee Heng Yu, who graduated just two years ago from his studies in the United Kingdom, gives us a sneak peek into how overseas-based Singaporeans typically celebrate Chinese New Year.
How does the Singaporean community celebrate Chinese New Year in the UK?
Heng Yu: There are many Singaporean “community groups” in the UK, not least among the large number of Singaporean students studying there. Usually, in bigger cities like London, several Singaporean student societies will “join forces” to organise a huge dinner to cater to hundreds of hungry Singaporeans who devour local fare such as cha kway teow and chilli crab. The dinner event comes complete with a massive lou hei session and the quintessential noisy lion dance to ring in the new year. In companies where there is a sizeable number of Singaporeans, they would also organise their own get-together during this festive season.
How do you and your friends celebrate Chinese New Year or get into the festive mood?
Heng Yu: One of my treasured memories involved doing something that would have been illegal in Singapore! I bought fireworks to set off one Chinese New Year, just simply because it is illegal to do so in Singapore. My friends and I had many rounds of steamboat dinners and engaged in the traditional practice of exchanging mandarin oranges.
How do you connect with friends and family in Singapore while celebrating Chinese New Year in the UK?
Heng Yu: I remembered Skyping my family to give my ‘virtual’ greetings. There are Chinatowns in most major cities around the world so it is easy to get into the celebratory mood – you just have to head down to the nearest one. Larger Chinese communities like the one in London will hold lion dances. On one of the weekends after CNY, the London City Council also held a mega-event in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the occasion.”
Celebrating CNY – A non-Chinese perspective
Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that recognises various ethnic and religious festivals as national holidays. Owing to a multi-racial and multi-religious society, Singaporeans are fortunate to be able to join in the festivities and in the process, understand our friends and neighbours of various cultures and religions better. Today, as in the kampong days of yesteryears, it is not uncommon to see HDB neighbours of various cultures exchanging festive delicacies and other goodies on such occasions.
Similarly, today, it is not uncommon to find inter-racial families that celebrate more than one ethnic-based festival. One such family is that of Non-Constituency MP, Mr Leon Perera, a Sinhalese Singaporean who has a Chinese Singaporean wife. Declaring that, “Snacks and good food are the order of the day,” Mr Perera usually kicks off Chinese New Year with a reunion dinner on the eve, with his wife’s immediate family. He then spends the rest of the holiday visiting relatives.
For Mr Perera, the most exciting part of Chinese New Year “is dressing up in traditional Chinese wear.” Another uniquely interesting aspect of his annual Chinese New Year experience is when he has to decide how much money to give children in hongbaos. Apart from this, the traditions associated with the different animals of the Chinese zodiac also pique his interest. (His Chinese zodiac sign is the Dog, by the way.)
Just like the rest of us, the CNY period is also an opportune time for Mr Perera to rest and recharge in the company of his family with whom he enjoys playing cards and board games.