Chinese New Year is just around the corner and this is traditionally a time to spend with our nearest and dearest. While there are many of us who look forward to the holidays, I also know of just as many who dread spending time with their kins. I am sometimes guilty of this too. We complain about anything from nosy and prying relatives to the lack of wow in our ang pows (red packets) and try our best to make a great escape. But, what we sometimes forget is how lucky we are to be able to be around people who loves and cares for us. For others, the luxury of having their family close to them is a distant memory and the festival is nothing more than just another working day in the country which they now call home.
Such is the life of guest blogger and a dear friend, Msiagirl, who has spent many, many years abroad. I am honoured to share her story with all of you today.
Chinese New Year: Away from Home for 27 Years
I’ve spent more Chinese New Years away from home now than I remember spending at home at all. Some I’ve let slip away without knowing the date, marooned somewhere without even the possibility of a take-out noodle. I’ve had faithful letters from my mum sent to a vast frozen Prairie, a Long Island suburban wasteland, an Appalachian town, and a Catskill house perched on the side of a mountain. Maybe you get the idea. I like isolated places and I like my solitude. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my friends and I have lots of them, just not all at once. So basically, I never celebrated Chinese New Year and I would read my mother’s letters about how much Ang Pow I’d got from my kind and generous Uncles and Aunties, and about the family dinners and how they had seen so and so at Open House. But I never could really write back about what I’d done that year. In fact, I probably didn’t really know what year of the zodiac it was on the Chinese Calendar. Alilfatmonkey didn’t know he asked me to write a guest blog sob story.
However, I got married and moved to England, and was forced by coupledom to engage in social dinner parties where I’d shyly make some wonton soup for the genteel shire-folk of the small town I lived in. I’d travel up to London to get wonton skins in Chinatown and keep them in my freezer. And if we were entertaining around the time of the 15 days of Chinese New Year, I would carefully request a pound of mince pork from the butcher, and dust off my tin of water chestnuts. You could buy Toasted Sesame Oil in the local Sainsbury’s foreign food section, some Spring Onions and some minicorn (if I was feeling rich). Then I would season the pork with white pepper, soy, sesame, grated ginger. I would add chopped water chestnuts and spring onion and stir it up together. I would take all afternoon making simple triangles of wonton. This is when I would miss my family, because this is when I’d imagine sitting round the table gossiping and making wonton together. A pound of mince pork makes quite a few wontons, so several platters of wonton later, I could dust the flour and the egg off my hands and make the soup. I like to make a shortcut soup – a cube of chicken/veg stock, some shallots, the minicorn and more spring onion, egg drop and another shot of soy and sesame oil, and when it is at a rolling boil right before the guests sit down I’ll drop the triangles of wonton in to bob and float about in the steamy broth. After many “oohs and aahs” down the years, I began to get more confident with making chinese food. Everyone would still ask me what Year of the Zodiac it was: but I bought myself a book to keep track of it.
So for the last few years, when my mother sends me a Chinese New Year card with a picture of the correct Zodiac Animal on it (she now knows how clueless I am) AND the exact dates of the Chinese New Year, I know it is time to plan the New Year Party. Because for the last few years, there’s a core circle of us who gather at my house because I know they miss Asia, or wish to know more about it. M is from Yorkshire but his Mandarin is better than mine as he works in Shanghai and Tokyo, he met his wife R when they worked together in HK in a bank and she works with a Vietnamese company now. B’s grandfather lived in Singapore and wrote a book about Spirit Mediums of the Buddhist Culture and C’s whole family have spent the last 3 years in Singapore, where she painted and drew the rapidly vanishing old houses and buildings, and volunteered as a tour guide at the Peranakan Museum.
We are the flotsam and jetsam of the global village. Any other Malaysians or Singaporeans passing through are invited of course, and the children, whose benefit this is for: spill from room to room dressed in any form of chinese dress we can find in our old trunks and cupboards. My guests bring me decorations for the house: double happiness stickers, mini tangerines, rabbit milk candy. They bring me old maps of Singapore, Vietnamese hats. I begin cooking two days before, buying groceries from the local Asian Grocery (hurray!) and huge bags of rice. I always make my mother’s yellow bean vinegared ribs with crunchy chilli pickled cucumbers, a big slab of salmon in hoisin sauce and black sesame seeds on a bed of very fine shrimp egg noodles, black soy sauce chicken, vege tofu stirfry, yellow sticky rice. I’ve made assam pedas and tamarind shrimp. Sago with gula melaka. We all eat enormously and we are happy together because what we all remember from Asia is the food, and the companionship of eating it. The children leave with an orange and a big Ang Pow filled with chocolate coins leftover from Christmas stockings, sometimes they forget the orange, and they don’t mind the coins are just chocolate.
I’d better look out in the post for my mother’s card soon, and get my big pot out for wonton soup. Plus this year I’ve looked it up, and I now know it is the Year of the Rabbit.
Kung Hei Fatt Choy!
Msiagirl’s Wonton Soup Recipe
“Make your wonton with as many friends or family as possible whilst having a good gossip about life.”
1 packet frozen wonton skins
About 450g mince pork or chicken
3 eggs (whole)
Grated ginger to taste
Soy sauce to taste
Finely chopped water chestnuts and spring onion
Finely grated carrot
Finely chopped raw prawns (optional)
Toasted Sesame oil
1 Beaten egg for sealing
1 pot of water
Stock cube or boil up some bones for stock
Vegetables of choice like some greens which you drop in at the end or more spring onions
and Beaten egg if you like egg drop (optional)
1. Season mince with soy, ginger, white pepper, sesame sauce. Add the chopped prawn if you like.
2. Add in the chopped vegetables and 1 egg (if you like it firmer, add some cornstarch but I don’t). Stir well
3. Get a teaspoon and spoon a bit of meat into a wonton skin
4. Fold edges over to a triangle (or fancier, I don’t how)
5. Seal the edges with beaten egg tightly, you will get an idea of how much after a few tries!
6. Get soup water to a boil, add the stock cube. If adding carrots or turnip add now. (If adding green veg, add last)
7. When water is on a rolling boil, drop in the egg if you want egg drop
8. Then, drop the wontons in: the skin turns see-through and sticks to the pork when they are cooked
9. Turn down the fire, put in the green veg
10. When veg is cooked, ladle out in bowls for everyone to share
11. Finally, eat them hot with some Chiu Chow Chilli oil.
Msiagirl is a talented poet, aromatherapist, mother of two, a tree hugger and a hippie at heart. She hails from Penang and now resides in some English countryside. But whenever she’s back in town, she whips up a gorgeous brunch for all of us. She used to blog a very long time ago on her blogspot site, which is still a treasure throve of her many haikus and poetry. But nowadays she prefers to wax lyrics over Twitter and her photographs on Instagram.
Follow Msiagirl on Twitter or Instagram: @msiagirl
Note: All pictures are from the private collection of Msiagirl with the exception of her picture in her garden, taken by Kenny Mah. Used with permission.