I would like to say that the Year of the Monkey started with a bang for me. But I can’t. Because it didn’t. Instead, it began with a whimper. From me.
The cause of this was an unprecedented happenstance. Or more to the point, a “didn’t- happen-stance”. It was a no-show. The chicken didn’t show up. As it should have. In its salted form. As it had done faithfully for all the Chinese New Years past. On the very first day of the new year, the day after the traditional family reunion dinner the evening before. There was no chicken left over. It was probably due to under-estimation and over-consumption.
The salted chicken is a Hakka specialty, one of the few things which Dad brought along with him when he left the Soh ancestral village in Dabu in Guangdong, China for Singapore in the early 1940s. He didn’t exactly bring the chicken with him, only the recipe stored in his head. After he met and married Mum, and raised a family, he duly introduced the culinary style to the family Chinese New Year fare.
The chicken is initially served poached and unsalted, chopped and re-assembled to replicate its uncut form, and this had been the main-stay of our family reunion dinner, for as long as I can remember. The high point, the actual delicacy, comes the day after. The left-over pieces of chicken, which had been seasoned with salt, stored overnight in the fridge (or just a simple larder, in the days before the family could afford a fridge), is taken out and steamed over some hot water in a pot or kwali (before the days the family could afford an oven), and served piping hot for breakfast, and/or lunch, if there’s any left over, and/or dinner, if there’s still anymore left over. This is what constitutes the official CNY dish for my siblings and me.
There is no special significance to the dish, no auspiciousness to its consumption, and no threats of brimstone or fire from heaven if we omit it. It’d just grown to become part and parcel of our CNY rituals, which the celebrations would feel incomplete without.
The left-over salted chicken that my siblings and I are familiar with is not much to look at. It is nothing glamourous. Bits and pieces of chopped-up chicken, mostly bones with some meat clinging to them. But we remember it to be the most flavourful and delectable morsels of food to have ever tingled our noses or prickled our taste buds.
Maybe it only appeared to us that way, because we were then young and hungry and didn’t have much else to compare with or distract us. But, even after we have grown up and old, and have our own kids, and could begin to afford a little more stuff, there is still nothing that we could find that is comparable to the salted chicken in terms of its delectability. We and our respective kids have grown to look forward to savouring it every CNY. We can’t say the same of our respective spouses though; they have their own family favourites to hanker after – the Foo Chow Ang Chow chicken, in my wife’s case.
But is it really such a big deal, this left-over salted chicken? you might ask. If you are Hakka, or even if you are not, but you have sampled the fare before, I don’t need to describe the flavour and taste for you. If you haven’t, I shouldn’t. I should leave it to you to discover for yourself. It’s a dish simple enough to concort.
Or maybe it’s just the recollection of a grown-old kid, of the days when life was hard, and money was scarce, but no matter how bad things were, the one constant dependable thing was the chicken at the reunion dinner table, and more importantly, the leftover to be salted, and enjoyed the day after. Maybe it’s only the memory of the taste and fragrance which came across so overwhelmingly in the midst of the little that we had. The only thing my siblings and I know for sure is that after so many decades, it continues to lure and satisfy. And our children have joined the flocks of devotees.
Not in this year of the fire monkey for me though. I’m not one to pay much heed to the Chinse Zodiac and its manifold prognostications. I did however remember briefly reading somewhere that the year would not necessarily pan out well for a rat, which is what I am, zodiacally speaking. Looks like the soothsayers may have something there.
Sympathising with my sense of deprivation, my wife offered to run out the same day and get another chicken and prepare a make-up meal of salted chicken. Like a spoilt brat, I told her it wouldn’t feel like the same thing – for one, it wouldn’t truly be left-overs.
Now, after a few days, we are going to have some friends over for dinner. She suggested that we introduce our friends to this most delightful of Hakka chow. Maybe the cold-chicken – I mean cold turkey – treatment has gone on for too long and has become increasingly unbearable. I very quickly lost my resistance and capitulated.
The dinner is on for today, the sixth day of the CNY. Our son and daughter-in-law will not be home for dinner, but they have requested that we save some of the chicken for them. Our daughter and son-in-law are nicely ensconced in London, so thankfully they won’t know anything about it.
What about you? Which is the one food item that you and family absolutely cannot do without at Chinese New Year?