Last Sunday morning, we woke up early to prepare for our all-day open house – there’d be stir-fried meehoon and turmeric cabbage on the home-cooked front. Dad came home pushing a trolley heaving with stock pots filled to the brim with mutton curry, fried chicken and gallons of chicken curry from Kari Guys in Lucky Garden*, as well as packets of nasi lemak and roti canai.
Me: There’s so much food…
Dad: You think we got five, ten people coming ah. A lot of people coming you know.
Me: Dad, there are 250 pieces of chicken. Do you have 200 people coming?
Dad: You think people only eat one piece is it.
Me: Dad! There’s so much other food!
Dad: Better to have more.
When you’re having an open house, the old adage ‘less is more,’ isn’t. More is more is more. Speaking of which, I often hear this gem at the buffet table: “it’s ok. No problem one. This kind of thing, only eat once a year one.” (The speaker is often shovelling their nth scoop of curry onto their plate as they say this.) You’ll hear this at every event which occasions a feast: Chinese New Year reunion dinners and the accompanying 200 open houses, Ramadan, Deepavali, full moon dinners, weddings. It’s technically true, I suppose. These events only occur once a year. Each.
Open house culture is unique to Chinese New Year in Malaysia, and it’s one of the best – or worst, depending on your relationship status and career prospects – parts of the holiday. It is as it sounds: over the course of a day, your house and your dining table are open to friends and family who will drop by to say hello, chill out, play mahjong, catch up on the latest gossip, interrogate each other about their children, and stuff themselves silly. (If you’re a rich politician, replace ‘friends and family’ with ‘potential voters.’) Most importantly, the unmarried kids – such as yours truly – get to collect angpows. Why does anyone get married again?
The open house can be as modest or as extravagant as you please – small affairs for close friends, or lavish dos to feed hundreds of friends and business clients. A few days ago, I attended an open house with a stupendous buffet. Half the food had been catered, and the other half home-cooked. I found myself – along with the several hundred other guests there – being drawn to the scent of seafood sizzling at a particular oyster omelette stall. They were light and crepe-like, stuffed with small juicy oysters. I ate one, then returned for another, washing it down with a bowl of prawn soup noodles with a dollop of sambal stirred in. Then some rice doused in chicken sauce. Then some vegetable dhal. And so on.
In the interests of good journalism, I took a walk with my notebook around the mountains of food. They had – brace yourself! – oyster omelette, char koay teow, lamb chop, roti canai with dhal and chicken curry, a mixed grill of squid, salmon and tiger prawns, Nicoise salad, deep-fried potato wedges, satay with all the fixings, prawn mee, popiah, rojak, rojak-stuffed tau fu pok, steamed chicken in Chinese rice wine, pork bone soup, Hokkien noodles, zhai, asam gai choy, braised pork, achar, glutinous rice, Chinese tong sui, fruits, an ice kacang station, an assortment of kuih.
As I finished my note-taking, I overheard one of the uncles noting that “last year there was more kuih. This year not so many.” To which I was tempted to retort, “give you an inch you want a mile,” before realising that that was something my mum would’ve said.
Clearly, food is paramount at an open house. As you may have gathered, there is no unifying culinary theme at the buffet table. Food at an open house must fulfil two criteria: it must be tasty, and there must be too much of it. Some people we know cook everything at home from scratch for their open houses, to which I say, well done. I take my hat off to you. Catering is the easy way out, but no less shameful for that. The most important thing is that there is a veritable surfeit of food, especially since there are always a few Gluttons™ who bulldoze their way through a buffet table as though winter is imminent, bless their ravenous little bellies.
Still, I thought our own open house would be a significantly more modest affair, which is why finding out how much food we’d ordered the night before came as quite an eye-popping shock.
Mum: I’m worried not enough to eat.
Dad: Eh, you know how many pieces we ordered.
Me: How many?
Dad: Hundred pieces of chicken.
Sister: ONE HUNDRED PIECES?
Dad: That’s only the fried chicken. Some more got curry chicken. Hundred and fifty pieces.
Sister: Two, two hundred and fifty pieces??? And you’re worried there won’t be enough food?
Mum: I’m scared lah.
Sister: We’ll be eating this for DAYS.
Mum: That’s why I said bring all your friends.
Mum: I’m scared not enough to eat.
There is something quite amazing about incongruous mum logic whereby the last two sentences can emerge consecutively from her mouth.
But I needn’t have worried too much – a little whirlwind of 70 or 80 people breezed in over the course of a day, and swept away vast quantities of noodles and curry. We pressed a container or two of curry on visiting friends, and we were still left with a modest four litres of chicken curry which we then bagged and froze. Open house success? I think so. The red packets didn’t hurt, either.
*A word about Kari Guys: I love, love, love their chicken curry. It is far more delicious than the curry from their competitor, Ratha Raub. (To be fair, the latter is more famous for its fish head curry.) I mention this because the owners of both places are from Raub, which is the village my parents grew up in. I grew up eating the curries from both these places, and I can tell you that there’s no contest here: Kari Guys wins in the chicken curry department.
Their curry is rich and deeply savoury, akin to a soupy South Indian-style curry but far less spicy. To get an idea of the consistency of the gravy, think of Japanese soup curry. The best way to eat this is to flood it banjir-style over lots of white rice. I can eat buckets of this stuff. Japan – my adopted home – has amazing food, but it ain’t got an Indian curry that can compare to this.