Thursday, June 01, 2006

Tuen Ng Festival

Yesterday was a Tuen Ng Festival in Hong Kong. The specifics can be read on the related link but more importantly, for the blog, of course, is the food. Parcels of rice wrapped in leaves, called “zhong” are the traditional food of this festival.

These little, portable, wrapped “lunchboxes” were quite popular before the days of TV dinners. When you think about it, it’s hygienic (serving as both the carrier of food as well as the plate, with no need for cutlery if you’re careful) and good for the environment (as opposed to Styrofoam boxes and plastic cutlery).

There are many variations but the most common savory zhong contain a piece of pork, with at least an cubic inch of fat (which infuses the zhong with flavor), together with a dried scallop (for the wealthy, some cheaper versions do not have this or have a very small one), a peeled chestnut (also somewhat of a luxury) and a salted egg yolk wrapped in yellow mung beans and glutinous rice. These are all cooked and wrapped up in leaves to be steamed before consumption.

There is also the sweet zhong, which is made with sticky rice, sometimes containing red bean paste. These are par-cooked and steamed to a sticky, chewy consistency to be eaten drizzle with golden syrup or in pieces dipped in sugar.

Each family eats zhong a little bit differently. I grew up eating the savory zhong with dark soy sauce (darker but not as salty) whereas a friend of mine dips his in granulated sugar and a colleague uses plain soy sauce. The same goes for sweet zhong. My family prefers boiling our own sugar syrup with rock sugar with ginger for a bit of a kick and some people prefer the texture of granulated sugar. Everyone thinks their method of eating zhong is the proper way and other people’s as strange or disgusting (savory rice packets with sugar….gross!).

Now onto my family meal....

As it was a family festival, my father’s eldest sister, Auntie Number Two invited us all around for a meal. A big meal. I think in every family there is one wealthy relative and one maiden relative. Both were present last night but it was the wealthy relative who was hosting the dinner, which is why it was so heavy on the rare (i.e. expensive) dishes.

We started off with a big bowl of shark’s fin soup. Ok, apologies to everyone here who is horrified by the thought. In principle, I don’t eat it but trust me, to get into the issue of refusing it with all my father’s family sitting around the table is really not an option unless I would like to be disowned. It doesn’t help but I don’t eat it except at family dinners.

There were a selection of appetizers included smoked pork, jellyfish, wasabi cukes and then the main dishes arrived.

First to come was the abalone with mushrooms….lots and lots of mushrooms. These were fabulous and I had at least 4 of the abalone and 6 mushrooms. Just tender enough but retaining some toothsomeness with a traditional braising sauce.

There were 2 chickens: one which was simply prepared with no sauce, to be dipped into the ginger and scallion sauce served on the side, and the other was “Chau’s chicken” which was prepared with salt and rice wine.

There was the boy’s favorite, prawns cooked in salted egg yolk……my kindly aunt cooked these especially for him…with no shells to slow down his eating progress…………unfortunately, however, the boy was ill and was not able to partake, to the extreme disappointment of everyone, especially himself.

Dishes of vegetables arrived and then the crowning glory, my favorite of the evening, the steamed whole fish topped with the remnants of rice wine….let me explain. Many people make their own rice wine in China and my uncle’s mother had made this particular vintage, of which there were only a few bottles remaining. My uncle generously shared some with us and it was very, very sweet, like a dessert wine with a beautiful aroma and no alcoholic taste. The “remnants” of the rice, become dark, almost black and strongly perfumed and salty and can be used to cook vegetables but in this case, was used to cook with the fish.

The fish was perfection itself. Lightly flavored by the wine-rice, savory and perfumed, the fish was firm and smooth, every bite tasted like the fish cheek (the best part of the fish and usually reserved for the honored guest or the most senior person at the table…for us it was my host aunt and uncle).

I ate until I was stuffed silly.

Finally it was starfruit and sweet zhong to finish a beautiful Tuen Ng Festival meal.

Side note:

In case anyone was in doubt as to the madness of my very lovely but crazy Chinese family, let me just describe to you the scene PRIOR to this gigantic meal.

My parents, Auntie B and I arrived at my Auntie Number Two's place. Auntie B had brought along an old DVD player, insisting to my protesting father that my Auntie Number Two does NOT in fact own a DVD player. As mentioned, Auntie Number Two is incredibly wealthy. Owns a HOUSE, in HK. But no, my Auntie B, insisted, they do not have a DVD player.

Upon arrival, Auntie B and my father, rushed over the the TV, at the bottom of which sat not one DVD player but THREE. Yes, THREE. One was packed in a box, being used as a stand for the other two which sat on top of each other. I won't even venture a guess what they thought those machines were.

Auntie B, slightly put out, insisted on playing the DVD that she brought over for my Auntie Number Two.

It was an aerobics DVD.

I am not kidding. We watched 30 minutes of a woman jumping frantically around a gym wearing enormous white trainers while my Auntie B showed us how to do aerobics. Then we sat down and ate enough for a small village.

I love my family but they are mad, mad, mad.

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