Chinese New Year was probably my favorite holiday growing up. It is a public holiday in Mauritius, so there would be no school and no work!
On the eve, we would wake up early to “sao shiong” before going to school. It’s a Buddhist religious offering of sorts to thank the gods. Mom would have prepared a steamed whole chicken and laid it out on a table. There would be three or five smaller plates in front of it, each containing an odd number of items. There would also be an equal number of small wine glasses next to the plates. Dad would light the sandals and bow, moving them up and down an odd number of times before passing them along.
My brother and I, already in our school uniforms, would take turns, each repeating Dad’s moves before passing them on to Mom. Once the service done, we’d rush to pack some “tiam pan” (a glutinous rice cake, nicknamed “wax cake” in Kreol) to share with our friends at school. Dad would also take some to share with his colleagues. One thing that Mauritius has done well is encouraging every ethnic group to participate in each other’s religious celebrations. Each group gets one national holiday, and sharing of treats is highly encouraged.
Once the school day was over, I could hardly wait. At night, it was customary to have a big family dinner, with my dad’s siblings and my grandmother. After dinner, all the grown ups would hand us kids little red envelopes containing money. And then, the firecrackers would start and would not stop until the morning.
When I became a teenager, the eve brought extra excitement because of the dance parties. My parents, my cousins and my friends would all go clubbing after the dinner party. As I got older, I was allowed to stay out later. Sometimes we would come back after dawn. In case you’re wondering how we got there and back, we would hire our school bus driver. Yup! Hard to believe I never drank any alcohol during all those years of underage clubbing.
The next day, the entire neighborhood would smell like firecrackers and the streets would be covered in little red paper flakes. Since we were also Catholics, we had to attend Chinese New Year mass. We were sleepy (after clubbing all night) and my generation mostly can’t understand a word of Chinese, but we’d go anyway to please our parents and sleep for half the day afterwards. Good times.
I’m no longer into loud music and crowded places, but I do miss the food and family gatherings. Two years ago, George got to experience the festivities for the first time. He did not care for the firecrackers, but did enjoy the food and traditions.
This year, since we can only travel vicariously through food, I decided to try and make the “tiam pan” cake at home. I got the idea from my friend Meeline, who was also trying it out in London. Our friend Wendy had sent her the recipe. I also got tips from my aunt Mary, who can pretty much make anything. After 4 hours of steaming, it turned out much better than I expected.
- 2 cups glutinous rice flour
- 1 cup dark brown sugar (or less if you prefer less sweet)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- Add water until the batter has a pancake batter texture
- Add orange zest from 5 oranges
- Steam for 4 hours (my mould is 6″ wide)