CNY Dreaming

This grand aunt is a mean cook, and her Hakka abacus seeds, pak cham gai (Chinese white chicken) and fried beehoon disappear from serving plates slowly.

Joanne Ng

As Christmas becomes an ever more distant memory, I find my thoughts moving towards Chinese New Year. 

Chinese New Year is like a food marathon for me as we visit several relatives in a day. I’ve come a long way from my childhood where I used to eat so many peanuts and ‘heaty’ goodies during house visits. A fever and coughing fits would inevitably follow, but still I dream – and was actually kept awake the other night thinking of what I will be sharing below.

We always start at my paternal grandmother’s house. I crave for the steamboat spread that we always have on New Year’s Eve, with my favourite Foo Chow meatballs and fish maw. I yearn also for the fried noodles, fried beehoon, and fried chicken wings – nowhere makes them so tasty like she does – that we will wolf down at her house during New Year’s Day.

The next stop will be my maternal grandmother’s house and we would be treated to a vegetarian spread.  Once-a-year dishes such as black moss with dried mushrooms and lotus red dates sweet soup accompany the star of the day – Hakka vegetarian chicken. Just the thought of it lingering in my mouth can bring me close to tears.

Grandma’s Hakka Vegetarian Chicken

From hereon we do our visiting in a pack together with my maternal uncles, aunts and cousins. The subsequent houses of my grand aunts are for all our stomachs to take a breather. That just means we reign ourselves slightly, picking at pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit and hae bee hiam instead, while we gear up for the next stop.

Because the next stop holds a gem – grand aunt’s homemade Chinese rice wine. Smooth, sweet, full bodied and strong. Every year we ask her for the recipe, which we will scribble down and forget till the following year comes around and this recurring custom follows suit. 

Wine goes well with food and at the fourth house; a treat makes its second appearance – more Hakka vegetarian chicken. One simply does not tire of this dish, and the few precious pieces in our bowls are quickly devoured.

At the next house, we make a beeline for the dining table and settle down – relaxed and ready to eat again. This grand aunt is a mean cook, and her Hakka abacus seeds, pak cham gai (Chinese white chicken) and fried beehoon disappear from serving plates slowly.


The Abacus Seeds Making Process

Kneading the dough

Ready for boiling!

Boiling of the Abacus Seeds take place in a large wok

The Abacus Seeds are cooked!

Of course, my dream is of the Chinese New Year that I can never have. Being away from home during this festive period is one obvious reason, and also because some grand aunts have passed on, with their culinary skills along with them. But this Chinese New Year, while sitting at my desk, I had with me a packed lunch, my grandma’s Hakka Vegetarian Chicken.


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