It took me about 10 years to start missing the festivities that surrounded this colorful holiday from my childhood. I remembered my grandmother whom I called Ah-ngin (for paternal grandmother) taking me to Bell Church, to light incense in the main temple and watch the dragon dance - I always get goose bumps whenever I hear the exhilarating rhythm of the drums, cymbals and gongs. Afterwards, everyone would gather in the dining hall for a scrumptious feast – I always look forward to the bean curd soup, seasoned with dried oysters, which I always referred to as “paper soup” with its undulating sheets of soy bean floating in tasty broth. But best of all, I love the custom of collecting "lai see" (red envelops with money) from my older relatives and counting my take at the end of the day, much like counting candy at the end of Halloween trick or treating.
Sentiments like this have been haunting me lately…maybe because I was getting older or was getting tired of seeing all the economic and turbulent news across the world that I longed for the carefree days and uncomplicated times of my youth when my biggest question of the day was "What's for dinner?".
So this must be why I was seeking solace in the food of the Lunar New Year. I thought if there was one place in Richmond that would offer a dining experience close to home it would be Full Kee – and I was right. Their New Year specials (I’ve included a commentary of the meaning of why they are served) for the evening included:
- Pig’s feet and lettuce (lettuce called “sang choy” sounds the same as the words “gaining money”)
- Marinated pork knuckle with fa choy ( fa choy is a black moss that resembles strands of fine hair and sounds the same as “getting rich” much like when you say “Kung hei fat choy” to wish someone a happy and prosperous New Year)
- Roast pork
- Pig tongue with sea cucumber and Chinese green mustard (tongue is “li” which sounds similar to “profit”)
I have spoken of the dried oyster earlier which was used to flavor the bean curd soup. It is called “ho sei” which means a “booming market”.
There were also an array of seafood specials but I only remembered the ones above.
To say that I was panicking as regards on what to order was an understatement. My eyes darted up and down the menu as my mind mentally savored each dish before I finally settled for the pig’s tongue. I did order the pork knuckle for take-out. The “Hungry” Hubby, faced by the exotic nature of the menu, played it safe by ordering the vegetarian special with cashews.
We were able to get our order in before a party of 26 placed theirs, so our wait was not that bad…and it was so much fun seeing people coming in, hugging each other as they greet the ones already at the table – just plain enjoying themselves with family and friends.
Though I felt that the food was light on salt, I had no complaints because this time it was more than just about the food – it’s the memory that it evoked. The fat choy reminded me of my Dad. Eons ago, I happened upon him one day uncovering a stash of these hair-like vegetables and he told me they were very expensive but he buys them anyway because they were highly nutritious. But now I wondered if they were expensive because they were very light and a kilo of them would have been a massive quantity. You know how our folks tend to embellish to get their kids to eat vegetables J. My dad also knew how much I loved pig’s tongue and would always prepare a pot of it especially for me whenever I came home to Baguio to take a break from my work in Manila. Sometimes he would even freeze them and send a care package to me through the conductor of a bus that made the Baguio-Manila route – I simply had to pick it up at the bus station. And with the size of the box and everything in it, you would think that I was starving.
Those bittersweet moments are a reminder of happy times but tinged with sadness because I can’t pick up the phone to call my dad or grandmother any longer because they have since left this transient world. But food remains a strong bond and every time a dish reminds me of them, my heart skips a bit and my eyes well up…