... when red lanterns are strung above the streets, a reservation for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a plane ticket to anywhere are harder to get your hands on than a greased pig, and cries of "Gongxi facai!" fill the air. Yes, Chinese New Year is just around the corner.
Happily for Dave and I, it's also the time of year that Malaysians give gifts of homemade goodies.
The treats above were made by the mother-in-law of one of Dave's colleagues. Clockwise from top left, we have nien kou (glutinous rice cake wrapped in banana leaf), mei chang (puffed rice and peanuts bound together with melted sugar), and lap cheong (Chinese dried sausage).
I'm acquainted with nien kou (nian gao in Mandarin) from Shanghai where, in the form of a firm, one-inch diameter "cake" of pounded, unseasoned glutinous rice, it's sliced and stir-fried with pork shreds, greens, and garlic. The nien kou pictured above, however, is a food specific to this time of year. Traditionally offered to appease the kitchen god, it now also represents wishes for advancement in all aspects of life (career, education, salary, savings) during the coming year (nien = year and kou = high or tall).
Though mei chang are available year round (we purchased a variation on the theme, made with dark smoky palm sugar, in Kota Baru), they and other cookies are especially evident in markets during the month-long leadup to the Chinese New Year, when sweet tooths seem to kick into especially high gear. The rectangles above are a grown-up version of the rice krispie treats of my youth, with the full-on grain flavor of puffed (instead of crisped) rice, a detectable pinch of salt that keeps the sweetness in check, and none of the sticky marshmallow goo.
Chinese dried pork links are also readily available throughout the calendar year, but right now Chinese provisions stores are busting at the seams with a larger-than-usual selection, including sausages made from duck intestines and a combination of oysters and meat. They're laborious and time-consuming to make (and contingent on the weather, since they are dried in the sun), so homemade versions are especially appreciated. The ones above are wonderfully porky, lightly seasoned, a bit sweet, and smell unmistakeably of rice wine. I'm looking forward to including them in a simple dish that will highlight their flavor.
This morning Z gave us a big bag of rempeyek. These deep-fried crackers of rice flour are flavored with cumin seeds, fresh curry leaves, and powdered ikan bilis (dried anchovies), and studded with whole ikan bilis (the silvery bits) and peanuts. They're fragrant, shatteringly crisp, absolutely addictive, and sure to ruin my hopes of shedding the last of my Malaysian east coast eatathon pounds before the end of the week. They're also loved internationally; Z's wife, who makes her rempeyek at home for sale, ships the occasional bag or three to customers in Japan.
The beauty of it all is that the gifts won't end with Chinese New Year. Mother-in-law (who, by the way, also makes her own rice wine) has offered to show us how she makes her lap cheong after the holiday hubbub has faded. Stay tuned.