Favourite festive food

Kueh kapit or Love Letters [Left] and
Kueh Bangkit [Right] with kuaci and
groundnuts and Mandarin oranges
For a long time, the sight of kuaci or melon seeds signalled the start of the Chinese New Year.
For me, kuaci is the tiny red variety, imported from China. Mum had a glass jar of kuaci on the table and I used to watch in wonder as the adults made clicking sounds when they split the seeds and ate the kernels.

Later, I learnt that melon seeds are significant because they symbolise propagation and this augurs well for the Chinese who also measure wealth by large families and many sons.

As a child, I watched the adults making the non-stop click-click noises as they sat around chatting and nibbling kuaci, and was tempted to try.  Then I realised there's a skill in holding a tiny melon seed between my little fingertips and cracking it open with my front teeth.  Saliva that wet my lips and fingertips didn't help because the kuaci kept slipping and after many attempts, I still failed to split the seed.

I remember how my misery turned to joy when mum helped me to split and fold back the shells into tiny "butterflies" with the white kernel protruding half-way for me pick and eat.

Today, the red kuaci is difficult to find in Johor Baru, even during the festive season.  Instead, the larger black-shelled kuaci, popular with movie-goers, are available all-year-round. Recently, I was in a mall with my friend Linda, and when we passed a shop selling Chinese New Year goodies, she spotted her favourite toasted melon seeds and could not resist buying a few bags.  These tasty seeds are highly "addictive", Linda confessed she could finish a whole pack in one sitting.

In every Chinese home during the Lunar New Year period, there's a profusion of Mandarin oranges or tangerines in bowls and baskets as the Chinese word for orange -- kum -- sounds like the word for "gold" which symbolises wealth. It is customary to greet guests good wishes accompanied by a couple of oranges.

During this season, visitors go for home visits armed with oranges to present to the hosts and today, it's interesting to see Malaysians exchanging boxes of oranges as corporate gifts.  But way ahead in the season, my friend Titus, who loves Mandarin oranges, would have eaten boxes of the fruit because it's his favourite.

On the first day of Chinese New Year, the first home we would visit is Ah Kong's or grandfather's house. This is where I will meet most of my cousins, aunts and uncles who turn up to give their well wishes to our grandparents.

Here's also where I first saw and appreciated the Malaysian open-house concept because Uncle Victor's multi-racial friends from St Joseph's School would visit and it was fun to see the guys blush when grandma gave them ang pow.  When I was growing up, I could not decide which I looked forward to more -- eating the festive goodies or eyeing the cute guys.

Pineapple tarts in different designs
In Ah Kong's house, cake and cookies were served in a traditional octagonal prosperity tray.  It's called a "prosperity" tray because the Chinese word for the number eight sounds like the auspicious word fatt which means to "prosper".  Its eight sections were filled with nuts, red dates, melon seeds and cookies and I wanted a taste of all the goodies in the tray. 
Grandma would serve a delicious chilled red jelly, and I look forward to tasting it each year because Uncle Victor still serves it in his home every Chinese New Year.

One of my memories of kueh kapit or love-letters is mum, with some of her friends getting together for a kueh kapit making session.  The courtyard of our home was transformed into an exciting open-air kitchen with rows of charcoal grills. The batter was poured into kueh kapit moulds and toasted over the charcoal grills. 
The children were told to keep away from the fire so I positioned myself at the opposite end of the production line to watch the cooked sheets of batter being turned out from their moulds and deftly folded or rolled before they cooled.  It was the right place to be because any kueh kapit that failed the tough Quality Control standards was rejected and I was ready to clear up the deformed but delicious, crispy, crunchy rejects.
Tray of Kueh Bakul or nien gao
Another seasonal essential is nien gao or kueh bakul because its name is a wish for higher achievements and better prospects in the coming year.  This sticky rice cake is found in traditional Chinese homes.

It's believed that the kitchen god goes to heaven to make his annual report on the household, so offerings of candy, honey and nian gao are made to him in the hope that he will report sweet things about the family. Children are told that when the kitchen god eats the rice cake, the stickiness of the cake will make it difficult for the kitchen god speak and give a bad report.

Foods with auspicious names, shapes and colours play an important role in the Chinese New Year celebrations.  Each festive season, I'm discovering that names of some foods which sound similar to Chinese words and phrases with lucky connotations, while the shape or colour of fruits or foods also symbolises happiness, prosperity and good fortune.

So as you are nibbling on traditional delicacies such as pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit, kueh kapit and bak kua (barbecued meat) this Chinese New Year, don't be surprised if you discover fortuitous new snippets of information about these favourite festive foods.
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 February 2011

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