Today, February 14th 2010, is not only Valentine's Day, it is also the first day of Chinese New Year. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, CNY celebrations start on the first day of the new moon and end with the Lantern Festival 14 days later. The lunar calendar goes on a 12-year cycle, with each year named after a certain animal. This year, it is the Year of the Tiger, the third animal in the cycle. According to traditional beliefs, a person's personality and traits are profoundly influenced by which of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs that they were born in. Tigers are physically powerful, gracious, independent and extremely bold animals and Tiger babies are known to be lucky, friendly, resilient and loving but also selfish and incorrigibly competitive.
Growing up in the state of Penang, Malaysia, the Teh household celebrates each Chinese New Year with a rousing reunion dinner on the eve of the holiday. This is a long-held tradition that is practiced by Chinese communities all over the world. Family members from all over will return to their ancestral home, usually the home that they were born in, to attend this all-important dinner. It is a chance to not only pay respect to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family, usually parents or grandparents who might still be living there but also of course, to feast on traditional dishes.
The Teh family reunion dinner consists of a community style hot pot or more popularly known locally as "steamboat." For those of you who may not be familiar with this style of food, it is most like the more familiar Japanese hot pot variant, shabu-shabu. When I was much younger, the "steamboat" vessel was heated with burning charcoal and as the years went by, electric versions eventually replaced those old relics. Here is a picture of a traditional charcoal-powered steamboat:
A steamboat dinner consists of a heated pot filled with delicious chicken or pork broth/stock made early in the morning and left to simmer for hours. And around this hot pot are various raw food components like sliced chicken and pork, shrimp (usually with the head intact), scallops, fish balls, squid, quail eggs, rice noodles, chicken liver, oyster mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, etc. The dinner usually starts off with everyone adding their favorite food items into the broth. While waiting for the broth to get up to temperature and start cooking the food, dinner conversations usually range from updates about what everyone is up to these days to the latest neighborhood gossips. As you can imagine, the more food is cooked in the broth, the more flavorful it becomes. So, by the end of dinner, we'll end up with the most intensely tasty soup that can be used for an impromptu soup noodle dish in the coming days.
Without a doubt, the reunion dinner steamboat is food heaven and certainly my favorite food memory come every Chinese New Year. To this day, I am still trying to recreate this dish with my own family here in the United States. And I am slowly getting closer to perfection each and every year.
Here's wishing everyone a prosperous new year and good health to all! Have a great Chinese New Year!