Monday, September 28, 2009

Modern twists to mooncakes, lanterns

THIS Saturday, the Chinese community will be celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival.

The Hokkiens call it Tung Chiew.

It falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month and is marked by the eating of mooncakes and lantern pardes.

The arrival of the festival in the city is usually announced by the emergence of mooncake stalls at shopping complexes, sometimes up to a month prior to the actual date, although in the past you rarely see mooncakes until after the Hungry Ghost festival was over.

Mooncakes too have changed quite a bit over the past 30 years.

The only varieties you get in the old days were the plain “tau sar” (black bean paste), black bean paste with “kuaci” (melon seeds), “lin yong” (lotus seed paste) and the “kim tooi” (mixed nuts, citron peel and meat) fillings.

Additionally, some would have single or double egg yolks and the pastry was usually brown.

Today there are more than a dozen variations, both in fillings and pastry, as manufacturers strive to set themselves apart from the crowd.

What used to cost RM1.70 for a roll of four mooncakes with plain black bean paste filling, today costs more than 10 times a box.

The packaging, too, has evolved tremendously.

Those days, mooncakes were mostly packed in waxed paper in rolls of four with each confectioner distinguished by the red, pink or gold labels.

Nowadays, intricately designed paper boxes and quaint-looking tins hold these festive delicacies—and in most cases, the boxes and containers cost more than the mooncakes thems e l ve s.

The ones I received lastweek came in a small balsa chest, complete with four drawers containing a type of mooncake each.

There was also a set of porcelain plate and a pair of chopsticks.

I dared not ask my brother-in-law how much the whole package cost.

Lanterns too have changed in shape and design over the years.

You will be hard-pressed to find traditional paper lanterns.

Chances are you will find instead LED-lit plastic lanterns.

Some even come with digital tunes.

Judging from the number and variety that come out each year, demand must have been there for the fireproof modern lanterns.

Or could it be that the traditional lantern makers are slowly disappear ing? I remember a time when everyone I grew up with knew how to make paper lanterns.

In fact, lantern-making was one of the art and craft projects in schools.

Students were taught how to connect six circular wire frames to make a simple box lantern.

I wonder how many schools still have lantern-making projects or if the teachers even knew how to make paper lanterns these days.

Not many parents I spoke to recently know where to get glass paper for the traditional lanterns, let alone make them.

I suppose one day, lantern-making will become extinct just like many other traditional activities.

My friend, Aman, told me that the Chinese are not alone.

The Malays are also slowly losing their traditional skills.

He said his nephews and nieces from Singapore who visited him during the recent Hari Raya were delighted to see k e t u p at cases woven by hand using palm leaves.

At home, their parents had used plastic-wrapped ketupat .

We can blame rapid commercialisation for indirectly contributing to the demise of tradition but I think we are also partly responsible if we do not take time or effort to learn more of it.

Otherwise, we may end up looking pretty foolish, for instance, giving away mooncakes during the Month of the Hungry Ghosts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bonded by similarities

BACK in the days when few houses had electricity supply, there were not many families who owned refrigerators.

During Ramadan in the outskirts, the only place to get ice for bu k a puasawas from the coffeeshops.

It cost 30 sen a block, measuring slightly larger than three bricks laid lengthwise.

In the late afternoons, hours before the call to prayer, my friends Man, his cousin Zahar and I would make some money selling ice door-to-door.

We would push our wooden wheelbarrow to the sawmill to collect dry sawdust.

Then we would buy ice in bulk at the coffeeshop for a discount.

We would break each block into fours and sell them for 10 sen each.

Each block would be coated with fine sawdust to prevent it from melting too fast.

Then it would be a race against time as we go door-to-door screaming “Air batu!” Sometimes, when it rained and we had bought one block too many, effort and investment went down the drain.

Usually, there was some profit — about 50 sen.

Wewould pool our profits and use it to buy firecrackers to play with after buka puasa.

Of course, I was always welcomed to my fr iends’ houses during buka puasa, so much so that I was always looking forward to it.

Once, my mother chided me that it might be impolite to join in the buka puasa since I did not puasa.

After that, I kept my distance and only joined them for the firecrackers after they had eaten.

When Malam Tujuh Likur arrived, marking the 27th day of Ramadan, the perimeter of most Malay houses would be lit up to mark the occasion.

Wealthy families would have pelita (oil lamps) in their compounds but the poorer ones made do with bamboo lamps.

My friends and I would harvest the fattest bamboo trunks from the riverside grove, clean them up and drill holes in between each node.

We then fill them up with kerosene and stick cotton wicks into each hole.

The bamboo poles would be raised several feet above ground and lit at night.

Usually the poorest families had the brightest lit compounds because they had more lamps.

The most exciting time was on the eve of Hari Raya when the womenfolk would prepare lemang, dodol and k e t u p at .

I would be enlisted to collectwastewood from the sawmill to be used as firewood and lend a hand to stir the dodol or watch over the simmering k e t u p at .

I recall telling my friend’s mother that the Chinese, too, had k e t u p at .

We ate them on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, I said, and it was called chang.

Unlike k e t u p at , chang had to be wrapped in bamboo leaves since the boiling period was much longer as glutinous rice was used.

I invited her to the house during the Dragonboat Festival the following year and showed her how we made chang.

We even gave her a bunch of plain chang to take home.

Understanding her religious sensitivities, my mother had used a new pot to boil the plain chang.

In return, my friend’s mother gave us chicken rendang instead of beef.

On Hari Raya, I would be the first to visit my friends after they had returned from visiting the graves of their departed.

Therewas never such a thing as an “open house” in those days as the doors were always opened.

Only wealthy families had their gates closed.

Anyone who was a friend could just walk in and out of any house, take a nap on the s e ra m b i (verandah), or help themselves to the j a m bu b at u or pandan leaves in the garden without having to ask, unless the owner was within ear shot.

I don’t know if people were generally more trusting in those days when the crime rate was much lower, but I do know that we knew each other so well that there was never any cause for doubt or suspicion.

This understanding must have been built through the efforts we took over time to learn about each other, our daily lives and cultures.

Our ties were bonded by the similarities that we share rather than the differences that we are born with and strengthened by being aware of each other’s sensitivities and respecting them.

Perhaps this is somethingworth reflecting on as we celebrate Hari Raya together.

Monday, September 7, 2009

When running water is not up to mark

WHEN we first got married, my wife did not notice that we had a well around my parents’ rented house.

She thought that the water, which flowed out of a tap, was from the piped water supply.

In fact, she once remarked that the water felt rather refreshing until she found out that it was from a well a short distance from the house.

Water was pumped up the tower tank for storage and piped down to the various sections of the house.

Our well also supplied water to several houses in the neighbourhood.

Our monthly “water bill” was a couple of ringgit per household — which was each household’s share of the monthly electricity consumed by the water pump.

The water was free.

Of course, the water was safe as we were living on the fringe of the city at a time when groundwater had yet to be contaminated by any industrial wa s t e .

Besides, we would know if the water was toxic — the haruan (snake - head) in the well kept a lookout for our safety.

All’s well if the fish is well.

Our well water was crystal clear except when it rained heavily the previous night.

Then it would turn slightly cloudy and we would be forced to turn to our stockpile kept in one of several t e m p aya n —giant clay jars — in the house.

Usually, if left in the t e m p aya n overnight, any turbidity would have settled the next morning.

If you scoop thewater without stirring the sediment at the bottom, you only needed to boil the water before you drink it.

I had got quite used to the taste of non-chlorinated water until we moved into an apartment later.

I was actually more worried about the safety of the pipedwater than the higher bill we had to pay.

I realised then that we had little control over the quality of the piped water.

The supply was unpredictable in both clarity and odour.

Sometimes, it looked like the teh tarik while at other times it was deceptively clear — except that it reeked of chlorine and we had to boil the water longer just to get rid of the smell.

Since there was no haruan to tell us whether the water was safe for consumption, we could only assume that it was by the smell of the chlorine.

Even that frightened us when we read about how over-chlorinated water could be just as harmful to us.

That was when we had to embrace water purification technology and install a water filter.

There are many types of water filters out there, of course.

Some are made of fibre while others of ceramic.

Better ones contain carbon said to absorb chlorine and a zeolite layer to remove heavy metals.

The more sophisticated ones even claim to have volcanic rocks that could impart minerals that have been depleted during processing so that we can reap the health benefits enjoyed by people in developed countries like the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Generally, the more expensive ones tend to be more convincing in their ability to purify drinking water.

In reality, however, I wonder how many of us actually have diagnostic kits on our kitchen tables to test the purity or have the skills to check if the filtered water was really free from contamination, let alone see if the so-called benefits actually come with the package.

More likely, we were all taken in by the advertising hype and paid a huge sum for a glorified water filtration system with fancy add-ons to ensure us peace of mind.

Come to think of it, isn’t it an irony that piped water could have spun such a huge business downstream?