This weekend marks the start of the new Lunar Year of the Rabbit. After visiting round DH’s family, we will return to my childhood home to visit my parents. And already, as I envision us unloading the kids and our bags from the car, and walking into the kitchen (that’s always the first room in the house I gravitate to each time I arrive home), suddenly my mind is filled with memories of my paternal grandmother.
Chinese New Year always meant a bustling time in my childhood home. Ah Ma and mum would spend hours in the kitchen and backyard, making all kinds of Chinese New Year goodies to fill the traditional eight treasure tray.
And of the myriad variety of cookies, there are but three nearest and dearest to my heart.
Kueh bangkit, baked in wooden trays. Little white powdery cookies in the shape of flowers or animals with a pink or red food colouring dot on top. Store-bought ones today are nothing like the ones grandma made. Made right, they melt gently upon your tongue, and five are never enough, because we’d want one each of every design.
Golden pineapple tarts – baked to crumbly perfection, topped with aromatic homemade pineapple jam, brewed carefully over the old two-ring gas stove which has since been replaced with a new and shiny twin.
And best of all, kueh kapit (“love letters”), crispy wafer thin egg rolls baked over Ah Ma’s charcoal stove out in the backyard, with Ah Ma herself fanning the coal fire, and busily spreading a thin layer of batter on the iron molds.
It was hot and hard work – one had to work quickly, and keep a close watch on the fire so the love letters wouldn’t burn.
Then as quickly as they come off the stove, with her bare hands, Ah Ma would peel the circles off the hot iron, and fold them while they were still pliable, in half and half again to form delicate fan shapes, that once cooled, would be delightful wafer-thin pastries.
My job was to cut circles of tracing paper and carefully arrange layer upon layer of love letters, alternated with tracing paper, so that the love letters would not chip or break. The tins would have to be packed and sealed off quickly with one last circle of tracing paper to keep the love letters crisp throughout the whole fifteen days of Chinese New Year. To savour them, one would have to flick the tin cover off with the back of a spoon, pick out a precious few, and quickly reseal the tin so the rest of the love letters would stay crisp.
Ah Ma passed away of stomach cancer when I was in upper primary.
If I’d known then what I know now…I’d have been more diligent in observing how to make the kueh kapit instead of just being satisfied with sneaking a piece or two as I packed the tins. I could go learn it from the internet now, or from a cooking school…but it’d never be the same.
I know one is not supposed to cry at Chinese New Year because one should think happy, joyous and prosperous thoughts to set the tone for the year ahead. But I can’t help it. I’m not even sure what triggered the memories of Ah Ma and her love letters.
Ah Ma, I guess I won’t know right now, if you know that your grand-daughter is penning these thoughts onto her web log. But I guess that somehow the Lord who lives in me, and Whom you are with in heaven, will help us bridge that chasm between the mortal and the eternal. And that He’ll let you know that I’m thinking of you and crafting my version of my love letters for you, this Chinese New Year.