In China the Lunar New Year is referred to as the Spring Festival because it heralds the coming of spring. No such luck in tropical Malaysia, where the weather all year ranges between ‘hot’ and ‘Jesus fucking Christ on a stick it’s hot.’ Around Chinese New Year it’s always blazing, and this week has therefore been blisteringly hot, hot enough that even KL denizens – not just me – are complaining about the heat. Thank goodness for air-conditioning, harbinger of climate change and vice that will eventually rip apart the ozone layer – to which we say, sod that. It feels like a sauna in this town. Any port in a storm…
This year was the first year we didn’t return to Raub for the annual reunion dinner. My sister and I dodged many bullets there, including the inevitable “you lost/gained weight is it” and “got boyfriend or not” type questions. Because of my interest in Japan, my uncle will sometimes harangue me about what the Japanese soldiers did to the Chinese in Malaya. (Trust me, I know…) The only thing I can actually do – short of answering back – is smile and nod. But compared to many Chinese families, I think my extended relatives are generally less nosy. Relatively speaking.
Ever since I began studying Japanese at university, I’ve become accustomed to the inevitable barrage of
questions well-meaning advice from aunties and uncles: wah, you studying Japanese is it. SOAS? What is SOAS? Oriental and African Studies ah. You studying African is it. Why you study Japanese in London? You going to be teacher is it? Oh, you moving to Tokyo. Work there is it. Very clean hor, Japan. Very nice there. The people very polite hor. They ah, bow to you all the time. But the men ah, aiya. Tsk tsk. Better don’t marry a Japanese man. They treat their women like what kind only. Later you have to walk behind them. But ah, the food very good. The shoo-shi ah, wuuuahhhh. Best, man, I tell you.
Chinese New Year is all about this: smile, and nod. Rinse, and repeat.
The first day of the lunar calendar is also all about zhai. Zhai is a catchall term for Buddhist vegetarian food, but ‘zhai’ is what we call Mum’s vegetable stew. It is one of the dishes we look forward to most when we’re back in the motherland. It is a glorious, sweet-savoury Chinese soupy stew full of Napa cabbage, beancurd skins, and various kinds of mushrooms. It’s all well and good, until I realised recently that she has always – quite inexplicably – made zhai with dried oysters.
“Mum, since when are oysters vegetarian?”
“They have no blood, so it’s okay. At least that’s what jia po told me…”
When your 92-year old grandmother tells you something, you smile, and nod. Especially if she’s telling you for the nth time that you should avoid dating a white man.
But, zhai. I cannot overstate how much my family loves Mum’s zhai. She makes 5 or 6 litres of the stuff each time – it begins life in a 10 litre vat – and we finish it in less than two days. Forget about rice: we devour scads of stew for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, dinner, supper. It is perfect winter food which we eat in eternal summer. While we were ladling stew into bowls, my older sister turned to me and said, “it’s pretty sad that British people think vegetarian food means meat plus two veg… minus the meat.” She lives in Cambridgeshire, so maybe this is to be expected.
Zhai is relatively simple to make, provided you have time and the ingredients to spare. I say this without ever having made it myself: it is the kind of stew that tastes all the better because Mum made it. Also, in true Mum fashion, there is no written recipe. Soak dried oysters and Chinese mushrooms overnight. Boil in several litres of water – not too much – with jujube dates and a honey date or two for sweetness. Throw in all manner of tasty vegetables and fungi, in order of softening time required: knots of golden lily buds, hair moss, sheets of deep-fried bean curd (broken up into pieces), a can of jumbo-sized button mushrooms, tau fu pok (tofu puffs), more Napa cabbage – stalks and leaves separated – than you think you’ll eat. Boil until everything is tender-soft, and the soup is sweet. As with most things eaten during the Lunar New Year, everything you eat is a pun on prosperity and auspiciousness. This proably explains the inclusion of ‘dried oysters’ in a supposedly vegetarian dish, since it’s a homonymish pun for ‘good things, good luck’ in Chinese.
A word about the canned button mushrooms: they are less interesting for their taste than their distinctively bouncy texture. When they’ve been left whole, my younger sister likes removing the stalk, leaving a little mushroom bowl which she’d fill with soup. (Hey, it’s mushroom soup!) The Chinese shiitake mushrooms in zhai, on the other hand, lend all their umami to the soup and soak it right back up at the end. They’re at their best when they’re tender and firm, with a slight yield when bitten… rather like a nipple, or a Tempur pillow. If you’ve ever pressed down on a pillow like that you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, trust me when I say that your braised shiitake should be the texture of nipples.
We eat zhai with spicy fu yi – fermented bean curd – a Chinese condiment akin to cheese. It looks like cubes of feta speckled with chilli, but is soft and smearable, rather than crumbly. I used to hate its salty, creamy, fermented tang, but became wholly addicted to it during my teens. We go through bottles of this stuff at home. It peps up otherwise boring plain rice porridge. I have been known to smear this on cream crackers in the dead of the night when struck by a desperate craving for salt. You can also stir-fry vegetables with it. Under no circumstances should you do what my sister’s friend did, which was to add an entire jar to a single veg stir-fry. Your vegetables will taste awful and you will be the laughingstock of any Chinese family (like, um, mine) who gets wind of this story.
Fermented bean curd is particularly delicious with tau fu pok, which are airy and spongy – perfect for soaking up the flavours of the broth. If you eat them straight from the pot you’ll burn your mouth. My older sister enjoys making a ‘tau fu pok sandwich,’ whereby she splits a tofu puff halfway open and smears a goodly dollop of fermented bean curd all around the spongy innards. Reseal and eat whole, enjoying the explosion of salty soup in your mouth.
(Way better than jizz.)
Another condiment which makes an appearance is nam yu – similar to fu yi, but fermented in a dark brine with red yeast rice. In this household, Mum takes some of the cooked vegetables from the zhai and stir-fries them with nam yu and glass noodles for a funky, extra-savoury twist on japchae. Nam yu is terribly delicious, but it always tastes a little musty to me, rather like essence of old aunts and the scent of their pink-carpeted spinster apartments.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year we ate zhai, soybean and radish soup, and vegetarian char siew. The latter is marinated mock meat which is supposed to resemble seasoned barbecued pork. Mum mentioned over dinner that she’d stir-fried this with vegetarian oyster sauce, which seemed utterly unreasonable given the fact she’d used actual oysters for the stew.
Me: Why the discrepancy?
Mum: Aih… Um, they put cockles in the oyster sauce.
Me: Aren’t they both shellfish…?
Mum: Cockles have blood.
Mum: Ya, it’s red. Yes! Cockles have blood!
Dad: Ya, lots of iron. Actually very good for you. I would eat. But it has that, what do you call it.
Dad: Ya. That.
None of us are actually vegetarian, nor are we particularly invested in going down that route anytime soon. So I’m not sure about this whole business, really. But when it comes to zhai, I think it’ll be easier if I just smile, nod and eat.