LUNCH with the ANCESTORS
Kylie Kwong discovers her lost relatives in the province of Guangdong in southwest China
CHINESE tradition firmly upheld by the Kwong family is the Essence of Qing Ming; that is, the celebration of the spirit of love and respect within a family, and this extends to a special remembrance of our ancestors. For those of us still living, this tradition gives a reassuring sense of where we came from and who we are in the world, and binds the family together.
Buddhist beliefs and Confucian teachings hold that when the ancestral spirits are happy and know that their descendants are thinking well of them, they will continue to be close to the family and work for its good fortune.
The associated rituals usually consist of offerings to ancestors to provide for their welfare in the afterlife. Necessities and luxuries, such as favourite foods, wine, paper notes of ‘‘ spirit money’’ and even models of houses and cars are placed on the family altar in bowls or burned in front of the altar.
Two important festivals of the lunar calendar revolve
Aaround ancestor worship: Qing Ming, in the third month (around April), and the Souls’ Month, which spans the seventh lunar month (about August). I have vivid childhood memories of the trips we would make to Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery at these times, to pay our respects to my mother’s father and mother. Dad would switch off the radio, we three children would cease our bickering and Mum would stop chatting to Dad. Before we even got out of the car, wafts of Chinese joss sticks consumed the air; ornate altars adorned many graves, and on them were placed offerings to the spirits of the dead: flickering candles, smoking incense, bowls of oranges and apples, even the odd chicken.
I remember dancing in and out of the rows of gravestones with my cousins, legs and shins tickled by tall flowers and stray weeds. I was always moved by the sight of my mother, with her sisters and brothers, conscientiously weeding, sweeping and dusting around their parents’ graves. These days would always end with everyone sharing food at an enormous and chaotic family meal.
Here in my ancestral village near Toishan in Guangdong province, a wobbly old card table holds bowls filled with food: a white-cooked chicken, still with head, neck and feet; one unpeeled orange; a juicy, fat strip of roasted pork, complete with crackling (I suspect my great-grandfather Kwong Sue Duk would have loved that); and small bowls variously filled with tomatoes, stir-fried potatoes and some cauliflower cooked with salted radish.
It occurs to me that even in the context of ceremonies, the Chinese are always thinking of balance and harmony of flavour, texture and ingredient. One of my relatives is saying something to me in Chinese and is becoming more and more insistent. After a lot of kerfuffle, I work out that tradition demands I add a sweet to the platter of food for good luck and to impart sweetness to the afterlife. I look around desperately at my friends and we all rummage through our bags until, finally, a mint is retrieved.
Three tiny plastic red cups, similar to ones you might find in a doll’s house, are placed in a row in front of the food, along with three sets of matching chopsticks. Another relative pours wine into the three cups and then lights a wad of joss sticks, which are a wonderful magenta colour with camel-coloured tips, exactly the same as the ones that our family used to light at Rookwood Cemetery. Following instructions, I hold the incense between my palms and bow forward three times. I then hand back the joss sticks and proceed to pour the wine, one cup at a time, on to the ground in front of the table; the cups are promptly refilled and repositioned, before the ritual is repeated. Next I light a wad of paper money, which is left to burn itself out on the ground, and bow a final three times. To complete the ritual, we all stand back as a box of red firecrackers is lit, and everyone shrieks and runs for cover as they let off an almighty bang and a blinding cloud of smoke. For me, these firecrackers unleash a flood of memories of Chinese New Year celebrations marked by captivating lion dances and the distinct beat of drums.
The Chinese enjoyment of noise, fuss, big crowds, bright lights and loud colours is all to do with driving away bad luck and evil spirits; silence, gloom and white are always associated with loneliness and death.
The ritual is over and it’s time to move outside of Kwong Sue Duk’s home to a perch overlooking the fields, where I’m going to cook lunch for the crowd of villagers and relatives around me. There could be no better spot to do it than here, in the middle of a rice paddy in rural China. My translator tells me that, in fact, few Kwongs still live in the village today, but one of them — who I immediately think of as an uncle — stokes the fire for me, and I have to do a double take because he looks so much like my eldest brother, Paul. We had scoured the local markets that morning for the freshest vegetables, including yellow garlic chives, wonderfully crunchy lotus roots and shiny purple eggplants; live baby fish and snappy little crabs; large red chillies and small green chillies . . . As usual, I was in a food frenzy and, as usual, I bought far too much.
As the flames roar into life under what seems like the world’s biggest and hottest wok, and with the temperature climbing as the sun rises in the sky, it is sultry, sweaty and smoky. In the background are timeless scenes of paddy fields tended by workers wearing traditional bamboo hats, while closer to me old men sit around the fire flashing gold-toothed smiles and smoking rather interesting-looking cigarettes.
The village women are enchanting. Although we first met just hours ago, I feel as if we have known each other for years, and we easily slip into this incredibly harmonious and efficient ‘‘ working bee’’. Squatting on their haunches, three of the women wash and wipe dishes, while the fourth goes up and down the path to the well, filling and carrying two pails on each trip. I am struck by the women’s energy and their zest for life.
These villagers are very fit: they live simply, eat only fresh food and, as farmers, work very hard in tune with the seasons. Despite having so few of those essentials we take for granted (there’s no piped gas, running water or electricity in the village), they have such spirit. Their eyes dance, they laugh all the time, they are responsive and seem to live in the moment. I say to myself: this is what living is all about. The next day, back in the village, we chomp, cook and cackle our way through the day. I laugh until my face and belly ache.
Drawing inspiration from the produce, the land, the country and the life of these people, I surrender to the flow and conjure up several new recipes based on China’s great reserve of hearty, unpretentious peasant cooking. I take enormous pleasure in cooking my versions of various traditional dishes: stir-fried eggplant with red chillies; fresh rice noodles with bean sprouts and ginger; stir-fried mushrooms with ginger and garlic; a pickled vegetable salad that I like to think of as a Chinese coleslaw; and, of course, some of the fantastic hot and sour cucumber salad that seems to be everywhere in China. The villagers clearly enjoy them and go wild when I serve up an enormous bowl of squid cooked in oyster sauce and vinegar. A few of the women also teach me some wonderful new dishes. We had bought a pumpkin at the market that morning, thinking it would look good in some photos. Well, not for long: one of the women has other ideas.
She takes the pumpkin from me, deftly removes the skin with a small, sharp knife, finely chops it up, then motions me to throw it into the hot wok, along with a dash of peanut oil, some ginger, a splash of shao hsing wine, a sprinkle of sugar and then, the star of the show, salted black beans. Yum. I now proudly have a version of this dish on my restaurant menu back in Sydney: Billy Kwong’s stir-fried organic pumpkin with ginger and black beans.
We’d also noticed a basket of tiny silvery sardine-like fish glinting in the market and just had to buy some. One of the villagers notices me looking at them with a bemused expression: What will I do with these? But no sooner has this thought entered my mind than the women are motioning me towards the wok. They fill it with plenty of oil for deep-frying, watching and waiting for the tell-tale shimmer to indicate that the oil is ready before gently lowering in the fish. They let the fish sizzle and swirl in the hot oil until they are brown and crunchy, then carefully remove them and drain off the oil. Into the wok go some sugar, a dash of vinegar and generous splashes of both dark and light soy sauce to infuse and caramelise for a few moments before being poured on to the fish.
Needless to say, it is all swiftly devoured. This is an edited extract from MyChina:AFeastfor AlltheSenses by Kylie Kwong, photography by Simon Griffiths (Penguin Lantern, $79.95).
MyChina:AFeastforAllthe Senses by Kylie Kwong)
Sweet treats: At the family shrine