Today, be inspired by a favorite childhood meal. For the twist, focus on infusing the post with your unique voice — even if that makes you a little nervous.
Happy Chinese New Year
When I think of Chinese New Year, I think about family and home; I smell the homemade sausages, salty pork, sweet and soft year cake (Sweet Rice Cake), and I see children wearing new clothes running up and down the streets playing, shouting and laughing.
The preparation for the New Year started a week before the New Years day. Mom would buy several fresh pork hams from the meat market and cut some into big slices and the rest into one-inch chunks. She marinated the meat in soy sauce, five-spices and some special Chinese liquor (Kinmen sorghum). That 95% proof stuff, when you take a tiny drop into your mouth, it stings and then evaporates instantly and if you take a big sip, it burns like fire. I didn’t like the liquor, but liquor marinated meat, on the other hand, smelled like heaven.
Mom cleaned the pork casing and tightened a knot at one end. She then stuffed the small chunks of pork into casings to make sausages. She then hung the sausages and big slices pork on a bamboo pole in the yard to let them dry. We, the kids, took turn to use a sewing needle poking many tiny holes into sausages, so when they dried up under the sun, the fat oil would escape through the holes and drip down to the ground.
Poking holes into sausages was fun. Those tiny popping sounds were quite satisfactory. Not to mention the mouth-watering smell would shoot out from the openings directly into your nasal passages. Since I preferred to eat lean sausages, I worked extra hard when it was my turn to poke holes.
The week before New Years day was also the time to make year cake. The year cake was made out of sweet rice flours. Since sweet rice flours were not available in the market back then, we had to grind the rice ourselves. The grinder was made out of 2 huge pieces of round stones. The top one had a handle so people could hold on to it and turn the top stone around. The top stone also had a hole to allow you to add water. When the top stone was turning around, the rice between the two layers would be ground into flour. Not many families could afford a grinder, so we had to wait for our turn. When we got the grinder, we had to hurry making the cake because there were others who were waiting to make theirs.
Steaming the cake was something else. The cake was usually 15 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 inches high. It took forever to fully cook it and if you mistakenly took the cake off the heat before it was done, the cake would be ruined. We steamed our cake in the yard. As busy as Mom was, she had also kept an eye on the fire, made sure the fire was not extinguished before the cake was done.
While Mom was busy making sausages and year cake, we were having fun playing with neighbor’s kids. Since no one was keeping an eye on Mom, she had no problem buying some goodies (small tangerines, candies and cookies… etc.), and hiding them so we wouldn’t eat any before the New Years day.
New Years Eve was one of the busiest days for Mom. She got up early in the morning so she could go to the market to buy fresh meat, vegetables and fruits. She then spent whole day cooking in the kitchen. Dinner usually consisted of 7 or 8 dishes. There were lion’s-head (meat balls cooked with Chinese cabbage), stewed beef and eggs (beef and egg cooked in soy sauce), eggplant stuffed with ground pork, sea cucumber (Dad’s favorite dish) and many more. There would always be a fish dish, but that dish wouldn’t make it to the dinner table. The sound of the word “fish” in Chinese is similar to the word for “surplus”. People believed that by having a fish dish in the house in the beginning of the year, this family would have surplus for the entire year. Mom liked to play safe.
Kids were allowed to taste Chinese liquor or wine at New Year’s Eve dinner. Dad would dip a chopstick into his liquor and let us taste it. It was after we started college, we were allowed to have a glass of plum wine.
Gradually, we, Chinese in America, lost our tradition on celebrating Chinese New Year. Most people in my generation don’t even know how to make Chinese sausages. “At least, we have memories,” we comfort ourselves. But, are memories alone enough to pass on to our next generation? I don’t want to think about it.