p Picks and Pecks: roadtrip: 拜天公 (bai tian gong - 9th day of chinese new year)

Monday, March 11, 2013

roadtrip: 拜天公 (bai tian gong - 9th day of chinese new year)

No recipes or review for this post - time for a roadtrip for Chinese New Year! The second weekend of CNY this year coincided with bai tian gong - when many Chinese pray to the Jade Emperor - so I went back to my parents' hometown to watch my relatives prepare the traditional food offerings. Prayers only start on the night of the ninth day of CNY, but preparations began before sunrise!

I rolled out of bed at 5am, and was still groggy when I went to the kitchen where they were already busy preparing ang ku koe (or red tortoise cake - say the powers that be on Wikipedia). Commonly found in the shape of a tortoise shell, the molds also make peach shapes as well as long ingot shapes. As you can see, we made both the red mung bean-filled ang ku, as well as the dark brown/black ang ku - dyed with the juice from sweet potato stems) which were filled with toasted black sesame paste, ground with sugar. 

Though it seemed simple enough to churn these out, they required a deft hand to remove the ang ku from the mold without damaging the tortoise shell design. Most important was the mold itself - my aunt has had hers for years and the dark wood is now impregnated with oil from years of ang ku making - good, distinctly carved molds are hard to find these days! These hardwood ones made the best impression on us (pun intended).

Once the ang ku were steamed and brushed with oil, we began work on the mi gu (米龟) - a plain steamed bun. Usually, mi gu are made in the shape of tortoises, like the ang ku but my aunts seem to prefer these dog-bone shapes - but you can still see a few tortoises in the bottom right picture. Made in a similar way to regular bread dough, the mi gu dough has to be kneaded and left to rise twice before the skin is brushed with pink coloring for the auspicious occasion.

While the mi gu were left out in the sun for the final rising, we started on the gai tan gao  or 鸡蛋糕 which literally translates to "chicken egg cake". Prepared with the simplest of ratios - equal volumes of eggs, sugar and flour - the recipe sounds similar to that of a pound cake (omitting the butter), but it takes a lot of muscle! The eggs and sugar are beaten together - I say beaten, and not whisked because we had to use an implement which more closely resembled a medieval torture device (top left) to beat the (40!) eggs into submission. When it was a thick, pale yellow, we added the flour and steamed the cakes in baskets - first segmenting them into halves/quarters with a chopstick dipped in oil to make them "smile" or puff open into quarter segments when they were cooked.

Last came the bee koe or glutinous rice. This started with sugar being dissolved in thick santan or coconut milk - constant stirring in the wok required! Once the mixture was smooth, glutinous rice was added (which had been soaked overnight) together with pandan (screwpine) leaves and cooked till the rice absorbed the santan. Constant motion is required as the mixture is apt to burn as it gets thicker - before it is scooped onto plates and smoothed down. Dates and a red hard-boiled egg are normally placed on the rice prior to prayers.

While writing this article, I realized that the biggest issue was trying to pin down the names of all these traditional offerings. I felt a bit sad and wistful that no one really writes down the recipes and preparations of these dishes any more - especially the more ceremonial ones like the bee koe. I even had trouble finding the proper names for these items. 

Also, with so many gadgets available I think we sometimes forget that cooking can be done with the most basic of implements. Here are some shots of the backyard kitchen where everything took place.