An Abundance That Echoes Throughout the Year

OF all the family occasions we have each year—and there are many—the one that stands out most is our Chinese New Year’s Eve chuxi reunion dinner. Think chuxi, and I always picture us eating the night away. After all, that seems to be what chuxi means: chu (“to get rid of”) and xi (“evening”). And eat away we do, as the old year grows shorter and the new one inches ever closer.

Given how chuxi is a yearly affair, it’s hard to remember one from the other. All of them are noisy and merry, lavish and sumptuous, marked by the spirit of abundance, or yu (homonym for “excess” and “fish”)—which also implies hao liao, good ingredients, the kind that sets you back a little in the pocket, such as abalone, prawns, beef, fish, of course, but definitely not tofu. Even if we had chicken, it must ring with grandeur.

And so, this year, my brother served up Herbal Emperor Chicken, lotus leaf-wrapped, and ultraslow-cooked in a dough-sealed cocotte. We also had braised abalone with mushrooms and dried oysters, a dish that always makes white rice taste heavenly. As we sliced our whole abalones like steaks, my elder brother, our yearly chuxi host and cook for a good decade or more now, says: “OK, everyone, go slow, don’t eat too much!”

We have to pace ourselves, he reminds us, because there’s still more: a fillet of Iberico pork roasted char siu style, cubes of US Prime beef panfried with garlic, dou miao and garlic stir-fry, and the customary carb conclusion. This year’s was a shellfish bonanza—Ee-fu noodles in lobster broth with panfried king prawns.

Now, all these add up to six dishes, not quite seven, because we’ve not counted our very first dish, yu sheng, a New Year must-have, a salad of julienned radish and carrot, flecked with slices of raw fish, and sprinkled with a host of auspicious-sounding seasonings and crunchy crackers, all tossed at the table. This year, ours featured salmon, bold, pink slices of them.

Even though yu sheng has been a constant in our chuxi menu for the longest time ever, every time we arrive at the moment of the big toss, our spirited, earthy shouts of “Huat, ah!” (Hokkien for “Get rich!”) seem louder than those from the year before. Wilder too, as 12 mad pairs of chopsticks attack the red, round platter at the center of our table.

The salad flies, up, up, and sometimes out of the platter so that the table looks as if it had been air-raided by crumbs of ground peanuts, streaks of radish and carrot, bits of candied green winter melon, and specks of sesame seeds. Before we know it, the platter’s all clean, cleaner than the table cloth upon which it sits. And the night has only just started.

That’s probably why we eat our yu sheng first, not because it’s a salad, but because it’s a symbolic way of announcing what’s to come. Call it yu time, if you will, an ode to abundance, not just on chuxi night, but the rest of the year—a toast to all the meals we’re blessed with, and my brother, whose kitchen always roars with a big heart.

(549 words)

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Describe how you celebrated an important family occasion.
Why will this event always remain in your memory?

(‘O’ Levels 2014, Paper One, Question #1)

This essay was written on July 24, 2015

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