LUNCH with the AN­CES­TORS

Kylie Kwong dis­cov­ers her lost rel­a­tives in the prov­ince of Guang­dong in south­west China

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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).

Pic­tures: Si­mon Grif­fiths (from

MyChina:AFeast­forAllthe Senses by Kylie Kwong)

Pic­ture: Si­mon Grif­fiths

Sweet treats: At the fam­ily shrine

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