Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part III: The 2nd Day Feast

Because my mom's family was Buddhist, Chinese New Year's day was always a strictly vegetarian day, when all we ate was jai.   However, that doesn't mean that we didn't have big feasts for Chinese New Year.  Quite the contrary, we would have multiple big dinners in fact.   Whenever we go out to Night in Chinatown to see the lion dances and the big festivities, we would usually have a nice "End of the Year" dinner at one of the restaurants there.   After I got married, we would always have a Chinese New Year dinner (or dim sum), with my wife's family.   But the biggest feast for Chinese New Year always comes for my family on the day after Chinese New Year, on neen cho yee (or the 2nd day of the year).   For my family this is probably the biggest feast of the year, rivaling Thanksgiving, and often surpassing it in the amount of food.

When my Po Po was alive, she used to cook the entire feast by herself, and it would take her several days.  Since she's passed on, my aunty has been the one cooking Chinese New Year dinner.   Unlike Thanksgiving and Christmas, where each member of my family contributes one dish, Aunty usually cooks Chinese New Year dinner all by herself.  This is largely due to the fact that Chinese New Year is not a State or Federal holiday in Hawaii, so we don't get the day off to cook.   Aunty will take one day of vacation time to spend the day cooking, but it's always a lot of work for her.  However, the importance of the holiday, with its need for special foods, usually outweighs her busy schedule.  Not having the day off, also means that we usually have to rush over to her house after work that day, both to enjoy the huge feast she's made, and to pay respects to our ancestors.

Whether they're Buddhist, Taoist, or whatever, many Chinese families will have an altar in their homes for their ancestors.   It isn't so much a form or religion (you don't really worship your ancestors), as much as it is a form of rememberance and respect.   To be perfectly honest, it never really meant that much to me until my Po Po passed away.   After she was gone, and we put her picture up on the altar, suddenly the whole altar had new meaning for me.  Suddenly, standing before the altar didn't mean paying respect to people I had never known, but it meant communicating with my Po Po again, telling her how my life is going, asking her for help and advise, and of course wishing her Happy New Year. 
My Family's Altar at New Year's
On neen cho yee, my family would rush home to stand before the altar before sunset.  In the days preceeding, every type of new year goodie, tong goh, gao, jai, narcissus, all kinds of fruits, and everything else would be on the altar.  But on this day, all of the food my aunty would be presented before the ancestors, so they could share in our feast.   Regardless of the number of ancestors, there would always be 6 bowls of rice (5 half full and 1 full), and 6 pairs of chopsticks.   We would ring the bell 3 times, to let them know we're home and to invite them to come home and feast with us (although my sons have taken to ringing the bell many more than 3 times).   We would then light 3 sticks of Chinese incense, put our hands together and bow 3 sets of 3 times, and place the incense on the altar. 

After we had all said hi to Po Po, my uncle and I would take the paper money from the altar and go outside to burn it in a pot.   Unlike Western beliefs, Chinese believe that money is still required in the afterlife.   But instead of working and toiling for your cash, you are taken care of by your decendants.  So every New Year (as well as funerals, death anniversaries, and Ching Ming), we burn thin paper with gold & silver foil on it (sort of like origami paper), called gum ngun.   In actuality, the paper is supposed to folded to look like gold teals (the nugget of currancy in the very old days), but since we don't have the day off, we've been burning unfolded paper lately (hopefully Po Po won't mind too much).   Living in the modern times, we also have paper money that resembles Western bills to burn, but we usually save that for Ching Ming.   When Uncle and I have finished burning, we would pour 3 small cups of liquor into the pot, followed by 3 small cups of tea, to finish it all off.   After we've finished burning everything, its time to eat!

In the West, and even at most Chinese dinners, there is one type of soup to start off a meal.   But for this meal, Aunty always cooks 4 soups.  These soups are actually most important part of the meal.   Each soup has a highly symbolic meaning and we usually only ever get to eat them at Chinese New Year, so they are very special.  This is especially so, for the first soup, which also happens to be my favorite one, called fat choi tong.    Fat choi is a type of vegetable, a seaweed, that looks exactly like jet black hair (although slightly thicker than real hair), therefore it is called fat choi (which literally means "hair vegetable").   This is one vegetable that had Andrew Zimmern known about would surely have been showcased on Bizarre Foods, because it is kind of frightening looking to the uninitiated (it really looks like a big clump of hair floating in your broth).  But I really love the texture of this vegetable, which I can only describe as kinda similar to cooked alfalfa.  It has a very subtle flavor, but somehow it is still not overpowered by the chicken in the soup.  You will also find this vegetable in traditional jai, but there it just blends in with all of the other ingredients, whereas in this soup it is showcased as the star.   This vegetable is highly significant for New Year's as it's name, fat choi, is a homonym, which sounds just like the Chinese words for wealth and good fortune (as in Gung Hee Fat Choy). 
Fat Choi Tong (Fat Choi Soup)
The second soup was always my favorite when I was little.   It is a corn soup or sook mai tong.  It isn't too dissimilar to corn chowder or creamed corn, but without any of the cream taste.   I think because it is such a mild, sweet, and creamy (in texture but not taste) soup, kids really like it, because it has become my son's favorite as well.   This soup also represents wealth, as the corn color is supposed to be similar to gold.
Sook Mai Tong (Corn Soup)
The third soup is the most ordinary of all the 4 soups.   It is a bamboo shoot soup, or jook sun tong.   Whereas fat choi is eaten almost exclusively at New Year's time, my Po Po would actually cook this soup for me on a semi regular basis.   However, it is still signficant to have, because bamboo shoots are a big symbol of longevity in Chinese culture.  I don't know how my aunty does it, but the bamboo in this soup is so incredibly plump and juicy, and marries so well with the chicken stock. 
Jook Sun Tong (Bamboo Shoot Soup)
The fourth soup is the most well known of these soups, shark fin soup or yuu chee tong.   If you've never had shark's fin, it actually has very little taste.   It is more of a slippery, long rice type of texture (but firmer).  It mainly absorbs the flavor of the soup its in.    While this dish has been a significant part of Chinese culture as a symbol of prosperity since the Ming Dynasty, it has been the object of controversy recently by bleeding heart environmentalists who consider it cruel to cut the fins of a shark.   Personally, I don't think it's any more cruel than the slaughter of any animal for food.  I do however wish that they harvested more of the shark than just the fins, as any animal that gives its life for food deserves to be made full use of.  There is also concern over the decline in the shark population as a result of over harvesting.  That, on the other hand, is something I can appreciate, and as in all things moderation is the key.  My wish would be that they found a way to farm raise sharks (any species really) to satisfy this demand.   Over hunting almost wiped out the American bison, but these days you can enjoy a very tasty, farm raised, buffalo burger in many places (if you've never had one, you gotta head down to Kiawe Grill in Old Stadium Mall in Moiliili).   Sharks fin soup is a delicacy, as well as huge part of Chinese culture.  It deserves to be protected, so it can be enjoyed by future generations.
Yuu Chee Tong (Shark's Fin Soup)
There is actually a 5th soup that is missing from this set, the famed bird nest soup or yim wo tong.    Bird nest soup, is actually made from the saliva that cave swifts uses to build their nests.   People that harvest these nests have to climb to the top of some very dangerous caves to pry them from the ceiling (it's even more dangerous than opihi picking).   It sounds truly bizarre and frightening, but like the sharks fin, it really doesn't have that strong a taste.  It's very mild, mainly a crunchy jelly like texture (like cartilidge or certain types of fungus).  The really high quality stuff actually just dissolves completely into the broth.   I remember my Po Po making it when I was little for big parties when all of our aunties and uncles would come over.  This soup, even more famous and significant than the shark's fin soup, is not only supposed to symbolize good health for the new year, but is supposed to have incredible nutritional benefits that will alleviate all kinds of health problems.  The problem with it, is that it is ridiculously expensive.   Even moreso than the shark's fin.   Bird's nests go for about $200 a pound for the cheap end stuff.   So, while it is highly significant, we just can't afford to have it every year.

Following the soups, Aunty usually cooks a number of different dishes.    In years past, she has slow braised whole chickens in her pressure cooker (something I used to refer to as "bathtub chicken" because of the shape of her pressure cooker).  This year she opted for some pork chops.   They look basic, but they were cooked just perfectly tender and juicy.   She adorned them with carrot medallions (also representative of gold coins for the shape and color).
Pork Chops
Aunty always cooks a lot of a big batch of shrimp, this year they were garlic shrimp.   Shrimp always seem necessary for festive Chinese dinners.  In fact, in many Chinese families, although they cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, it is the shirmp that is the highlight of the meal.   I remember in grad school, I had a Korean friend who just sat there the whole Thanksgiving dinner eating nothing but the shirmp and grunting every so often about how good it was.   Many Westerners aren't as fond of shrimp, because they're lazy to peel the shells off, but that's what locks in all the flavor.
For a vegetable course, Aunty usually creates something interesting using all of the leftover ingredients that go into jai.   What never ceases to amaze me, is how you can take these same ingredients, put them together in different ways, and have them taste totally different.   In this case, it is the sugar snap peas she threw in that just dominated the flavor of the dish.   The vegetables were so incredibly sweet, not in a sugary sense, but in that fresh, green, from the garden taste.  
Mixed Vegetables
My mom also decided to contribute a dish this year.   After visiting Hsu Yun Temple, and sampling their true monk's food, she was inspired to try recreating their dish with her own leftover jai ingredients.   Then she went on a tangent throwing in American bacon and some Vietnamese sausage (gio).  However, unlike her supreme jai, somehow these ingredients didn't mesh very well.  On top of that, one of the bean curds she used had a very funny canned taste, which kind of spoiled the whole dish for me.  I would've just preferred some more of her incredibly awesome jai.
Mom's Concoction
This year, Aunty also tried to make something really special.   It was a dish of some of the most amazingly plump and juicy black shiitake mushrooms (or doong gu) that I've ever tasted, along with some very tender and sweet abalone.   Abalone is also not cheap, though not as bad as the shark's fin or the bird's nest, coming in at around $40 a pound.   I don't usually like abalone, because many people do it wrong and it's really tough, or it has a weird canned taste.   But these were so remarkably tender and fresh tasting.   Abalone is another significant dish, because the Chinese word for abalone, bao yuu, is another homonym, sounding just like the words for "guaranteed abundance", something we definitely need in this economy.
Abalone & Black Mushrooms
To wrap everything up, you definitely need to have a fish.  Fish or yuu, like the abalone, are a symbol of abundance and prosperity.  It is as important to the Chinese at Chinese New Year, as to the Japanese during regular New Year's.   Of course, you have to stick with the classic Chinese steamed preparation with sesame oil & shoyu sauce, garnished with green onion and ginger.   Howevever, this time Aunty went with a pair of mullet, which I don't think were quite as tasty as the uhu (parrotfish), she cooked at regular New Year.
Braised Mullet
There is one dish that is very conspicuously missing from all of this.    My Po Po used to make the best joong at New Year's time.   Good joong is all in the wrapping, and she used to pack it tighter than anyone I've ever seen in my life.   She used to make wrapping it look so easy, but my mom and my aunty were never able to wrap it nearly as well as she did.  Just like my mom gives jai out to all her friends and family at New Year, my Po Po used to be famous for the joong she gave away at New Year's time.   Even if I went to the market to buy some joong to add to the meal, it would never be as good as my Po Po's was.   It is something that I miss every year since she's been gone.
Chinese New Year's Dinner 2010
In actuality, like the 12 days of Christmas, Chinese New Year is supposed to last 15 days.   It begins with New Year's Day and ends with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day, and every day in between is supposed to be celebrated with different foods (the 3rd day is supposed to be feast of fruits), but like Christmas in our modern world, it is just too difficult to celebrate more than one day.   But with everything Aunty cooks, we have leftovers for days anyway, and more importantly we keep our Chinese traditions alive.   It is one of my favorite holidays and I think my Po Po is happy to see her great grandsons ringing the bell for her and starting to enjoy the same foods she used to cook.


  1. mann i love bird's nest soup too even IF its made from spit!!! <333

    i eat it like once every monthish and used to bought from website hongkong-bird-nest.50webs.com/index_e.htm sometimes, my mom went back to hong kong and bought a full suitcase of it cause its cheaper there XD

  2. I love Shark Fin Soup! It is only good when you know where to eat it. I live in NYC, and always go to Brooklyn. I only eat Shark Fin Soup, like once a year because it's expensive, but in NYC, Brooklyn, Shark Fin Soup is delicious!

    Bird Nest Soup is great as well. My grandma would always make it. Once my grandma shouts, saying "Yum tong!" which means Drink Soup. Me and my brother would run down stairs to look for the cup with the most Bird Saliva...sounds disgusting, but it is delicious!