COLUMNIST/ E.S. Tung:
THE cold breezy mornings and windy hot afternoons these few weeks reminded me of my childhood days when the Lunar New Year was around the corner. The “Northern Winds”, as they were called by my elders, have been blowing for days if you have noticed.
They had arrived as they often did in late December or early January in years past, heralding the change in the lunar calendar and bringing with them that unmistakable festive cheer, especially among the Chinese.
Whether you come from a poor family or a well-to-do one, you can’t help being drawn into the festive mood as you catch the faint fragrance of kuih kapit being baked or the distant tunes of familiar festive songs that you had listened to so many times before.
The annual spring cleaning would start around this time in our rented home, I recall. As a teenager, my duty was to gather bamboo leaves from the bamboo grove a stone’s throw away from our home.
Before vacuum cleaners came, everyone in our neighbourhood used bamboo leaves for the yearly clean-up although plastic brooms and feather dusters were already sold in shops.
Bamboo leaves were chosen because people believed that it could symbolically sweep away bad luck left from the remaining days of the current year. But I think the real reason was because the leaves, which had tiny “hairs” on them, were more efficient than plastic brooms in removing dirt from timber homes.
A few sweeps were all it took to remove the cobwebs under the rafters or soot stains from the wooden walls.
Only the short variety of bamboo which had tiny leaves and slender stalks was used. The bamboo leaves were cut in yard-long stalks and tied in a bunch which was then mounted onto a long slender pole 8-10 feet long. Light and flexible, these bamboo brooms could be easily reach every nook and cranny of the house.
Once spring cleaning was over, houses were given a new coat of paint. For some of my neighbours who could not afford repainting, a coat of anti-termite oil was all their humble abodes got.
This smelly solvent is now rarely seen except in small towns where it is used on timber houses. Painted onto the exterior planks, it not only deterred termite attacks but also waterproofed the planks. An added bonus was that it gave the old planks a polished sheen of brownish black that lasted several months.
After spring cleaning, the cookie-making frenzy would begin and the womenfolk would be kept busy, often till the eve of the New Year. Every family, including mine, would make some traditional cookies and cakes, depending on how much they could afford.
Those days, not many such festive fare were sold because ingredients were quite cheap and knowledge were generously shared. The womenfolk had more time on their hands. Various types of cakes and cookies would be made and shared with neighbours and friends.
Mandatory among the list of festive sweetmeats was the kuih kapit, I remember. In fact, kuih kapit making was as important to my village folk during the run-up to the Lunar New Year as lemang or dodol-making was to my Malay friends during Raya time. Kuih kapit was not difficult to make if you had some knowledge and little ingredients could yield plenty.
Makeshift barbecue pits for baking kuih kapit come up in the front yard of homes or under some shady trees. Usually a tag team of two was enough to make kuih kapit — one person to bake and another to fold it.
Kuih kapit had to be folded the minute it left the mould. A second too late would make it so brittle that it was impossible to reshape without breaking it into a thousand pieces.
Some families also made glutinous rice cake as a matter of observing tradition. These sweet sticky cakes, called tnee-kueh in Hokkien (nien-ko in Mandarin) or kuih bakul in Malay, were primarily used in the annual prayer rituals when sending the Gods back to the heavens. The offering of the sticky cakes would prevent them from reporting the bad deeds of some people to the higher powers up there!
Only experienced hands could make the best nien-ko. Glutinous rice flour batter, with generous amounts of sugar, would be poured into rattan baskets or condensed milk tins lined with banana leaves. These would then be steamed in a giant wok over wood fire for a good 8-10 hours.
If all went well, the reward would be a tray of fragrant, golden glutinous rice cakes with glistening tops at sunset. But if taboo was broken, then the day-long effort ended up in the drain, or so it was believed.
The taboos, as ridiculous as they sound today, included barring women in confinement from the kitchens where the cakes were steamed. To break this rule, they say, was to risk turning the nien-ko into tubs of sticky goo that were not fit for mortals, let alone gods.
Inquisitive children were also cautioned by their elders to never ask when the glutinous rice cakes would be ready when they were in the kitchen. Otherwise the “sensitive” nien-ko would be pock-marked by tiny craters.
Of course, many who failed in their nien-ko making did not realise that behind the old wives’ tales were plausible explanations as to why the glutinous cakes did not meet aesthetic standards.
A poorly mixed batter, for instance, could have resulted in one stubborn nien-ko that refused to solidify. The tiny craters could also have resulted from water dropping from the steamer’s cover, especially if it had not been kept air-tight.
Few would suspect that the taboos could also have been cooked up by the selfish who did not want to give away the secret of making simple festive fare.