Sunday, January 22, 2012

Home is where the stomach is

Today on Sunday, Sunday, January 22, 2012, Page 8-9, Speakeasy, Columns
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By Tabitha Wang,, 04:45 AM Jan 22, 2012

PHOTO: No matter what, we Chinese will move heaven and earth to get home in time for the sacred reunion dinner.
Today on Sunday, Sunday, January 22, 2012, Page 9, Speakeasy, Columns

Around this time of the year, the office gradually empties as people leave for their hometowns for Chinese New Year celebrations.

You'd think this means my company employs a lot of expats but no, even for the locals, "home" means somewhere in the mainland, which can take days to get to.

The siren call of home usually gets louder as the spring festival nears.

Airlines know this and charge a premium for their tickets. Even the budget airlines raise their prices, so that they're almost on par with full-service ones.

PHOTO: Chinese will move heaven and earth to get home in time for the sacred reunion dinner.

They know that, no matter what, we Chinese will move heaven and earth to get home in time for the sacred reunion dinner.

The first year I came to Hong Kong, I told my family we wouldn't be back for the dinner. It would be the first time I would miss out.

No problem, my usually traditional dad said. He understood that we couldn't get leave from work.

No problem too, I thought.

Then, Lunar New Year Eve came - and with it a huge flood of homesickness.

PHOTO: Assam prawns.

My mum, in an attempt to include me, started texting me a list of the food the entire family had brought for the potluck. "I made curry chicken and assam prawns. Tua Kim brought her potato salad, Sah Kim brought your favourite arrowroot and lup cheong, Ji Khoo made his famous yee meen ... They didn't know you weren't coming."

PHOTO: Steamed Chinese Sausages with Arrowroot
Posted by "No Frills Recipes" on Monday, January 25, 2010
This round, edible tuber, 'arrowroot', 'ngah gu or ci gu' which literally means 'benevolent mushroom' and also known as 'arrowhead', is eaten particularly during Chinese New Year. It's got a very slight bitter taste, a starchy texture, almost like a potato but it's somewhat crunchier even when it's cooked. You can make stews with it or even make into chips and in my opinion, they taste better than potato chips.
We only get to see this once a year just before the CNY season and they are imported from China. Some people will 'grow' them weeks earlier. Place them in a glass bowl or a container with some water and pebbles and they'll flourish ......... makes a beautiful ornamental plant, very auspicious for Chinese New Year!

My husband was working late that night, so he didn't notice I'd spent the entire dinnertime in tears. When he came home at 10pm, I was a wreck.

Thankfully, my cousin who lives in South Africa was online, and she tried to comfort me from across the oceans.

"I haven't gone to the reunion dinner for 10 years," she wrote.

Then she went on to reminisce about the reunion dinners past.

"Around now, Tua Khoo will be telling his usual ghost stories. Remember how we used to be too terrified to sleep afterwards?"

It didn't help. I just needed to be there.

The next year, no matter that the air tickets were double the price, I was on the plane home - and I haven't missed a reunion dinner since.

However, with finances tight as we are still effectively a single-income family, I asked my husband this year: "Do you think we should give it a miss?"

He looked at me. "Remember what happened the last time you said that?"

So we compromised. I will be flying home, while he stays in Hong Kong to look after the cat. He loves his Chinese New Year, too, but I think he's more stoic about it than I am.

PHOTO: Chinese New Year outfit.

There is an added reason for going home this year: It's my baby nephew Dominic's first Chinese New Year, and his Mak Koh needs to be there.

When I was contemplating not going home, my sister-in-law e-mailed to entice me: "Dominic is crawling now, and we have bought him a New Year outfit, complete with little Chinese hat."

How could I resist?

It's very strange. I can go a whole year without missing my family. E-mails, Facebook, MSN Messenger chats and Skype calls are enough to satisfy my need to keep in touch.

But when the New Year comes around, something stirs my blood and I just yearn to be home.

PHOTO: The vegetable stock and arrowroot provide a thick sauce that holds the flavors.

It's the same every year. Everyone looks that little bit older, grandchildren start appearing, but I will still be listening to Tua Khoo's ghost stories while polishing off the rest of the steamed arrowroot and potato salad.

Then one aunt will rib my only unwed cousin when giving out the hongbaos.

Maybe the longer I live away from home, the more I crave that familiarity.

PHOTO: Sambal udang petai (stinky bean).

PHOTO: Sambal udang petai (stinky bean).

I want to know that, as I battle living among unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places, some things never change.

That's why I am going home this year.

Okay, that and a second email my sister-in-law sent: "Your petai and buah keluak are waiting for you."

PHOTO: Buah keluak is one of the signature delicacies of the Peranakan community.

PHOTO: Stuffed Buah Keluak
This hard-shelled fruit, signature to Nyonya dishes. The black, clam-shaped nuts are truly a taste sensation. The interior of the nut is painstakingly remove from the shell and ground into a paste, then fried with belacan and other spices. It is then put back into the nut and cooked with the chicken. The taste is amazingly awesome. As you scrape out the paste you savour the bitter, strong and frgrant flavour of the nut that tasted much better than it looked.

By Tabitha Wang,, 04:45 AM Jan 22, 2012
Tabitha Wang wishes all her readers a wonderful Year of the Dragon.