For my family, Chinese New Year has always been about lots of little traditions and mini rules that we all grew up with. There are the normal ones, like wearing lots and lots of red (I think this is for luck, but Wikipedia informed me otherwise - apparently the color red scared off a mythical monster), new clothes and shoes, visiting family and friends, and of course, the food.
This is how a typical Chinese New Year morning would go. We would be woken up very early by anxious mothers, aunts and grandmothers, hurrying us to get ready before breakfast. We would all be staying at our grandmother's house for the occasion, my cousins and I camped out in our parents' childhood bedrooms. Our parents would get there very early in the morning to prep for the breakfast feast. Hoi Neen roughly translates into 'Start the Year', and is really important in our family, if not in general Chinese culture. My Chinese vocabulary of these event and food names is a jumble of Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien and Hakka, so I apologise if I mix anything up.
There would be a mad scramble for everyone to have showers in the morning to start the new year 'fresh'. And you can't wash your hair. I don't know why. We would all already have had showers the night before after the Reunion Dinner and mandatory playing with sparklers and fireworks, but you don't mess with tradition. Dinner is a chance for the family to catch up before the new year, and everyone flies back to Malaysia from wherever they are - Australia, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Our dinner was usually at the Hilton, where we would have yee sang - a sort of salad that you toss with chopsticks at the table, with sashimi salmon, carrot, radish, cucumber, and other salad-y ingredients, and my favorite dish - battered prawns with this amazing mayonaise sauce we called 'salad prawns', but I don't know what it's actually called. After dinner and the fireworks and our showers, we would all get out our new flip flops - everyone has to have new flip flops for Chinese New Year; we all have a vast array of Havaianas to prove it - and at midnight smack them on the ground to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. (It is actually just really fun to smack your thongs on the ground. Try it and report back)
Anyway, on Chinese New Year Day after everyone is all showered and decked out in their new clothes and thongs, we all gathered around the dining room where the adults would have prepared the Feast. The First Day Feast is vegetarian. I never knew why, but Google told me that it's supposed to enhance longevity. There's rice, peanut and lotus root soup, ho bao dan - literal translation is 'purse egg', more later, jai (a vegetarian dish), mock duck and mock abalone, and tons of other vegetarian food that I can't name. We have to teem fan - 'add rice' - have seconds. This is symbolic for having a year of abundance. Yes, everything means something. I'd always have a teeny, tiny first serving so I wouldn't be too full to have seconds, because the more times you top up your plate, the more ang pau (red packets filled with money) you get.
After breakfast, we'd all get into our respective cars (it became very exciting when my oldest cousin learned to drive, when I was about 8, because she drove all us kids and we had our own kids car) and visit various family members. We'd collect more ang pau, gather in the huge downstairs bathroom to compare what we got, eat pineapple tarts and other Chinese New Year cookies and treats, and drink chrysanthemum tea or lychee juice in poppers (something we were only allowed once every year). After we'd visited all our distant relatives we'd come home, exhausted, sit in the air con for a little bit, and then have McDonald's for a snack (it was okay to eat meat when the adults weren't there) and then go shopping at Mid Valley Megamall with our new cash. (Sales assistants would comment on the crisp, new money from our ang paus, I can't decide if this is embarrassing or not)
The first Chinese New Year I ever spent not in Malaysia was bizarre. It was a school day, as it isn't a public holiday in Australia, so I had some muesli for breakfast before walking to school. I wasn't wearing anything new, or red, or thongs - my blue school dress and black lace up shoes. I had a spinach and cheese roll for lunch, in line with the vegetarian tradition, and read A Midsummer's Night Dream. My best friends back home sent Gong Xi Fa Cai messages, and I felt the oddest sense of displacement. When Galvyn and I got home from school, I made him change right away into new, red clothes. Then I made us baked potatoes in the microwave and we watched after school TV until my mom came home, and we had an extremely ordinary dinner. Completely weird.
Luckily, this year Chinese New Year fell on a Sunday. Yay! So we planned for an epic hoi neen breakfast. My mom made me ask Caitlin if she wanted a traditional Chinese breakfast, or if she wanted bacon and eggs. (We did that once, a few years back, and although it was delicious we all agreed it was strange) Caitlin said traditional. So here's our feast. There are a few dishes missing, because we forgot about the ho bao dan, and also the roast duck. Whoops. (Yes we decided to forego the vegetarian theme again)
We had steamed rice, yee sang, jai, soy sauce prawns, shallot pancakes, ho bao dan, stir-fried vegetables, and the roast duck. The jai dish is a Buddhist dish that's supposed to be comprised of 18 different symbolic elements, but ours had: dried shiitake mushrooms, fatt choy (we call it 'hair' because it's a really fine mushroom/fungus that looks like hair. I absolutely love it), wood ear and cloud ear fungus, fu chuk (tofu skin), wheat gluten and peanuts. That's the dish on the left.
I didn't get a picture of the ho bao dan, but it is basically a fried egg, sunny-side-up, and for the last couple of seconds you carefully fold it in half, making a little 'purse' - hence 'Purse Eggs'. It's supposed to mean your purse will always be full, if you eat plenty of these. We all had one each yesterday. The vegetable stir fry had cauliflower, beans, baby corn and tofu, and the almost-forgotten duck was just purchased from a Chinese BBQ store.
I also made these mini shallot pancakes in the mini frying pans I used to make the ho bao dan. I blended plain flour, sesame oil, an egg, shallots and some water in the food processor and then poured the mixture into a sesame-oil greased pan before sprinkling more shallots on the top. They weren't as crispy as they should be, but were still delicious in the dipping sauce (chili, soy sauce, white wine vinegar, sesame oil). Behind that is the soy sauce prawns, my grandmother's specialty. Prawns (in their shells) in soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic and a teeny splash of tomato sauce.
And of course, we had to have tea (: Special Chinese New Year tea, with a special Chinese name that I have no idea of:
The yee sang: shredded carrot, cucumber, pickled ginger, turnip, chili, capsicum, pomelo, peanuts, sesame seeds, lime-marinated salmon, and delicious keropok (deep fried 'chips' - I just made these with wonton wrappers) on top. We added the sauce to it - a mixture of plum sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. It was delicious, and everyone had a blast tossing.
Tossing. The higher you toss, the better.
Tossed.Gong Xi Fa Cai, everyone! (: