Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Singaporean/Malaysian CNY in Australia

Chinese New Year is often the time I feel the most homesick. Many Australians might relate to that because it is as big as Christmas is to Aussie families. There is lots of food, lots of presents, more food, and the chance to see some family like cousins and Aunts you might not have caught up with all year. And before you know it, it comes around again.

While Christmas is also pretty big in Singapore, it is not in anyway as big as CNY. You might have a few friends over for a roast and pudding and you might exchange presents and cards. But for the latter, there are days of preparations for the feast- all the condiments must be ready, the house must be cleaned from top to toe and decorated with ribbons and lanterns. The pussy willow (yes its a real plant) is the traditional "tree" on which decorations are hung. All the freshest produce must be bought on the eve, and traditional greetings and gifts of various cakes and mandarins must be ready. There is a buzz in the air and shops everywhere blare out traditional tunes to remind you that the time is coming!

The past eleven years in Australia, my own celebrations have been low key. There was one year when CNY was in mid January (it follows the lunar calender) and I got to spend it back in Singapore once more. The last 4 years it has been virtually non-descript here in the country save for eating at the Hong Kong restaurant here in town. This year, things were a bit different as my childhood friend J who got married last year in October, had her own place and we decided to have a mini celebration of our own. Previously she had it mostly with her own family or extended family who also live in Australia.

I bought some char siu (chinese bbq pork), noodles and roast duck. She prepared the Yu Sang which is the lucky raw fish salad Singaporeans and Malaysians traditionally have during the festive season, and also obtained some of the traditional cakes and biscuits served this period.

This is a before shot of the salad. It consists of candied ginger and melons of various description. Some consist of fresh grated carrots and radishes etc. Everyone's recipe is slightly different. The fish J used was smoked salmon. This went beautifully with the dressing which has plummy overtones. The traditional fish is a white fish but salmon sashimi is also used.

An action shot of the tossing of salad. This is tossed high together saying "loh hei" and various toasts are proposed to each other, wishing each other good health, success in work, good results for studies and generally a smooth and happy year.

These are the various biscuits and cookies. They are popular only in Singapore and Malaysia, as they are made by the straits born Chinese. These were chinese whose forefathers arrived in the straits many decades ago and settled amongst the indigenous malays. They resulted in a unique breed known as Peranakans, Nonyas or Babas. Keeping their heritage, they kept celebrating chinese new year and the malay influences led to these unique biscuits served during this time. It can also be bought at other times of the year but you need to hunt around for it.

On the left, the white biscuits have a melt in the mouth quality, similar to powdered sugar but much less sweet. These are called kueh bankit (kueh meaning biscuit or cake). The fan shaped arrangement of striped cake is kueh lapis. A variation of this is also served in Indonesia with prunes amongst the layers. It has a buttery taste is very fragrant. The things that look like mini spring rolls, I have absolutely no idea what they are called! I cal them mini spring rolls and my mumknows what I am talking about. They are filled with sambal shrimp which is dried, fried, spiced shrimp paste. Richard reckons they taste great with beer. The little golden logs are pineapple tarts. They are a shortcrust pastry filled with pineapple jam and they come in many shapes and sizes.

It was really nice having the opportunity to share this experience with friends. Also, it gave Richard a little more insight to some of the traditions I have grown up with. He loved the yu sang and I am happy about that as it is one of my favourite dishes too! I don't know if I will ever be able to completely reconcile the differences in culture and lifestyle I experience and what I have grown up with. I suppose it is harder for me as my parents are still overseas, rather than say someone like J whose family are all now Australian. I recognise that there is no perfect country or place to live in and somehow I hope that our kids (if we end up having some) will be able to carry on the best of both Singaporean and Australian cultures, practices and traditions no matter where they might live in the future.

And after our busy weekend, I feel kind of like Magic, my doggie.


At 8:39 AM, Blogger Sue Crane said...

Don't suppose you have a recipe for the yee sang? I'm trying to make it this weekend!

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Flatfeet said...

Wah! At least you got the chance to eat Yu Sang. Me haven't eaten that for donkey years!Perhaps I should go and check out places if I can have it takeaway.-_-
OOO my favourite is Kueh Bankit. I was even telling mom if she can freeze those Bankits so i can have it when I get back SG in May. Obviously, she just replied with a loud 'HAR??'

Magic is such a cute fella! Did i tell you I am a dog lover? My fellow colleague has a Alaskan Mallamut.Gosh* So cuddly!!heh.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Hi Sue! Sorry I don't but you can "cheat" and pre-order a day before picking it up from Tamasek. Alternatively, Helen from grab your fork might have one as she posted about a homemade one on her blog. My friend actually used some condiments specially brought back from Malaysia (the candied ginger stuff) so I don't quite know what exactly was in it.

flatfeet!!!! Yeah maybe next year we can meet up and have yu sang :) I tried to go to Tamasek on sat night but the crowds were out the door! they even said sorry they really couldn't accept any more people that night. So before next CNY we should book a few weeks in advance :)

I think there is a shop called Harry's nonya kueh at Joo Chiat it will probably sell kueh bankit all year round. If you live near the east coast I can give you the address.

I love my Magic! He is so huggable , soft and warm and he understands alot of what you say. He will be 10 (human) years old in April! I am lucky to have a loving companion like him.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger RON said...

Hi mentioned that your friend "J"....her family moved to Oz. Are there a lot of Singaporeans moving to Oz for some particular reason?

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Katie said...

Rach, that looked so good! I think I'll have to experience a CNY with you sometime and you can tell me all about the customs and traditions, and (more importantly) the food! :) I love the fact that we have so many people of diverse cultural backgrounds in Australia!

Magic... haven't seen him for so long! Have you still got Raven too?

At 12:27 AM, Blogger cat_aunty said...

I have a sister staying in Perth, for the last 6 years, and she only managed to spend CNY once in Msia. We missed her during those times.

At 12:52 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

Hi Ron, there is no mass exodus but many Singaporeans tend to send their children overseas as the range of courses is wider. Eg. The National University of Singapore doesn't have any Physiotherapy nor optometry courses. About 10 years ago there was only 1 uni, there is now another, more technical one. But in a country with a population of 4 million and only 2 universities AND where culturally it is important to get a degree, parents like to increase their children's chances by sending them abroad to study. Then, probably like me, we get jobs after graduating, settle down etc. Some whole families migrate as they believe Aus has a less hectic life. Apart from banking and finance sectors, not many others are open on the weekends. Shops close onthe dot of 5 everyday, some don't open on Sundays. Compared to Asia where shops stay open until 10 pm, government workers eg. lawyers, teachers etc. are expected to work half days on Saturdays. Hence, the lifestyle is different.

Dear katie :) yes Raven is still alive and fine and still very petite. I will post some pictures of her sometime! Yeah next year I'll invite you over for sure! Richard and I will have to give you a red packet of money as a traditional present if your not married by then hehe.

Thank you for visiting Cat Aunty! I have an aunty in Vancouver whom I have only seen twice over the last 11 years. Such a pity but I guess everyone has to find a niche they can call home on this planet. I'm just glad there is the internet and chaper phone rates so we can always keep in touch with loved ones.

At 10:37 PM, Blogger Clare Eats said...

I finally finished part 1 of the weekend. That salad looks really good, but I think I felt just like Magic when it was over LOL

At 2:43 AM, Blogger Dr. Mommy, D.D.S. said...

hey rachel!
it must be hard being away from the family during the holidays. i'm pretty lucky because my family is about an hour plane ride away, but i remember celebrating my first christmas with the in-laws in toronto. it was so hard leaving new york, and it was so funny, when my mom dropped us off at the airport, she stood at the curb and watched us until we got all the way to the front of the check-in line with this sad look on her face! is the plane ride very long to singapore? do you and your family visit each other often?

what breed is magic? he's a beauty! maui, my sis-in-law's dog, is a pomeranian. i'll take some pics and post them on my blog when i get a chance (and am less lazy!)

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Dentist Down Under said...

I missed yu shang! Lucky you! I was down in Melbourne to spend CNY with my family when my stupid solicitor called about the house and I'd to fly back at 6am on new year eve! *SOB* Then I attempted to cook my own version of CNY eve dinner and I discovered my little slave had thrown out my lee kum kee oyster sauce (brought all the way from Melb!) when he cleaned out the fridge while I was away. *double SOB*

flatfeet: You can buy kueh bankit in Melbourne! hurhur!

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Flatfeet said...

DDU: wei you should have bought some for me when you are there. ;p When you going Melb?

Rach: I mailed u! just! Hurhur ;p Check it out.

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Hi Doc Mommy! Is your family in NY? I know that sad look very well as I see it every year when I go back to see my folks. Singapore is 7 hours away by plane from Sydney. Its ok if we lived there but living hte extra 4 hours away makes organising a trip home a bit harder.

Magic is a schipperke. They are little belgium barge dogs bred small from the belgium shepherds.This is a very good site about them I am totally in love with this breed and we have another doggie, a girl called Raven whom I will also post pics up of sometime.

Hi dentist down under... bah I also hate when people throw out things without asking me :P Hope you have a chance to have a good chap goh may

At 4:45 AM, Blogger KirkK said...

Hi Rachel - I'd never heard of Yu Sang before, so I found this post to be so informative. Magic does look a bit tuckered-out....but if it's from partying, that would be a good thing!

At 2:12 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

Hi kirk if I ever get a good recipe I will let you know and you can try it! Magic had a very big and busy day (As you know doggies do) ;) but he has since recuperated and is very much friskier

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Tea said...

Hi Rachel, I just found your blog and loved reading about the CNY traditions. I've spent a bit of time living away from my home country and I can relate to how significant it is to continue the rituals and food that we grew up with (I think I was my most adventureous as a cook when far from home as I would try anything to recreate certain dishes and flavors). It's wonderful that you are able to bring together different cultural backgrounds and make them both part of your lives.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Tea, thank you very much for your kind comment. I think working on cultural differences and living in a different country is always a work in progress!

At 5:17 PM, Blogger milgwimper said...


That was an awesome post, and a wonderful day. If you ever get a good recipe for Yu Sang I would love to have it. :)

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