Sight - Festival days

Sight - Festival days

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

Late one afternoon our cousins brought over a large flat package wrapped in the sort of brown paper that I knew came from one of the dusty stores in town. They had excited looks on their faces and seemed complicit in a secret knowledge they weren’t yet ready to share. They were older and wiser, in my eyes, but not unkind, and quickly told us we should wait until after dark to open the parcel. Obedient as I was (on occasion), it was a long wait until they deemed the night inky black enough to satisfy their rule.

We were instructed to open the wrapping carefully. # is did slow down progress but they were watchful that we should follow their instruction. Inside were beautifully coloured animals drawn on rice paper and mounted on wire frames. Our much more worldly cousins showed us how these could be folded out into three-dimensional forms. To our further surprise, they had candles inside which, when lit, gave illumination to a bright red goldfish, grey and black striped cat, caramel brown monkey, gold and black tiger, white and grey goat, and chestnut dog (what now, in my memory, seems a large menagerie shepherded by our four cousins, my sister and me).

Children are universally told not to run around with fire, but on this evening an exemption was granted to the rule. We cautiously proceeded around the border of our garden, unused to traversing territory that was familiar during the day but alien and frightening at night. There were uneven patches in the grass, areas without any lighting, where insects sounded their loudest and closest with their slightly threatening noises, and looming shadows way above normal human height. Once the territory grew more familiar and we became accustomed to carrying our lanterns, we ran with abandon, scaring each other with the shadows we made. It was an occasion for boisterous, unrestrained joy, running ragged late into the night. Only later did I find out that we had been celebrating the Autumn Moon Festival that evening.

Celebrating the Lunar New Year is a confusion of frenetic memories for me. It meant dressing up early in the day to visit relatives and friends, sitting quietly and nibbling on sunflower seeds while the adults chatted together, then receiving the red packets. The convention, if you’re not aware, is that married adults present to children, or unmarried adults they meet on that day, vivid red packets embossed with lurid gold characters denoting wishes for prosperity and auspiciousness. These packets potentially contained generous (or token) amounts of money.

We would make our way into the town and see men, in a long line, covered with a costume representing the Chinese conventional image of a lion. The lion danced to a drum beating amidst the light flashes and exploding bits of paper from the fire crackers. We feasted among a large group of relatives, with dishes laid out on the table all vying for our attention. Food ranged from the extremes of extravagance to the apparently humble, yet symbolic: whole steamed fish; dried oysters braised with black moss and dried shiitake mushroom; prawns; drunken chicken; and sweet niangao slices, dipped in egg and then fried.

Festival days could also be quietly contemplative events. The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar was an occasion to gather to eat sticky rice parcels wrapped in bamboo leaf. My mother had become quite expert at forming these four-cornered parcels, which I would describe as asymmetrical pyramids. The filling was fiddly to make, with layers radiating from the centre: pork, then dried shrimp, chestnut, shiitake mushroom, mung beans and rice. The first sign of her intention to make rice parcels was finding her in the kitchen rubbing the green skins off the soaked mung beans. I would try my best to wrap the rice in the complicated arrangement she demonstrated, but much greater dexterity than mine was demanded, so my attempts were either abandoned or stood out as rather irregularly shaped objects among my mother’s perfect parcels.

The parcels were taken into the garden to be boiled in a large pot over the fire pit. It seemed to take an age, with my mother periodically going outside to stir them around and make sure the parcels were unbroken. Once they were cooked, the already plump parcels appeared even fatter, straining against the hemp string that held them together. I was sure my mother made these more than once in my childhood conception of a year, that it was on more than one occasion we gathered around to unwrap the leaves, which tended to stick a little to the rice, and savour the bamboo-infused flavour and marvel at the distinct layers of the parcel. It was only years later, talking to my mother about why she chose to teach herself this complicated process, that she admitted she made sticky rice parcels whenever she felt like it, rather than observing the particular festival traditions.

Going back to that firelit night of the Autumn Moon Festival, you might ask: what did we eat? It seemed that the joy of running around with lanterns overshadowed any thought of food. However, the snacks and celebratory dishes are ever present and have symbolic meaning and on this occasion it was moon cakes: lotus seed paste encased in a soft pastry, sometimes with a centre of salted duck egg yolk. My mother added her individual celebratory touch to the evening: she had split the top off a watermelon and scooped the red flesh into balls, which she then piled back into the hollowed-out shell.

When we had tired of running and scoffing down cake and fruit, the end of the evening saw us lying in a lighted patch of garden until the rain suddenly poured in a torrent to cool down the evening. My last memory is of the abandoned watermelon in the garden, slowly filling to the brim with rainwater.

Recipes in this Chapter

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