When I was growing up, Chinese New Year didn’t just mean getting tons of red packets or angpaus. It also meant preparing the home and goodie table with cookies and other homemade items. Some of the yummy items were tedious to prepare and required either hours of prepwork or cooking. But my mother was fixed on making them herself and it was mostly because buying these goodies were expensive. At RM24 for a tin of 100 pieces of kuih kapit, we would easily spent RM100 for four tins just for this year’s open house.
I didn’t understand the importance of making things myself. After all, there are plenty of people selling these cookies and all just before Chinese New Year. At least that is the case if you are still living in Malaysia. When I got married and moved overseas, even buying decorations or cookies became difficult. And that was when I understood why my parents made me help out during prepwork for festive occasions.
I started to make my own cookies and roped in my hubby to help out. The first year in Switzerland, I made pineapple tarts, chocolate almond cookies, and cooked my own reunion dinner meals. The hubby helped with the preparation of the pineapple tarts and I made him open up ALL the windows and doors at midnight in the middle of a very cold winter season. Oh, till today, he still teases me about the stir fried noodles that I made for reunion dinner which we later ate for three days…
Then I got pregnant.
Suddenly who I am, what I did as a child became important because while my children are French, part of them is Malaysian-Chinese. I wanted them to experience what I experienced as a child – the traditions, the merriment, the practices and yes, even the food & experiences that come along with it.
Kuih kapit, pineapple tarts, these are festive foods that are important to me because they remind me of my family, especially my mother. The recipes are a secret, much to the disappointment of some of my friends – family heirloom is what my mother calls them as she inherited them from her mother and my grandmother. I remember the many hours of prepwork in the kitchen that is peppered with gossip and chatter as well as laughter. There is no way you can sit in front of the kueh kapit mold and fire for five hours without talking to the person opposite you or the one folding. It’s just not possible. It is a way to build relationships, cement ties as well as for children to learn a thing or two about a skill. Even folding these little crispy cookies (kueh kapit) is a work of art – fold too thin that it’ll take forever to fill up a tin. You need to fold them in such a way that the blemishes and imperfections are hidden. Of course you also need some self-control and not eat these as they are folded!
I started off as a folder and it took about five years or rather five Chinese New Years before I finally moved up to the “prestigious” position of mold handler. Even then, I was only given four molds to handle. Being a mold handler meant that I would be expected to help out with the prepwork and this means access to the coveted family recipe! It was only in 2007 that I was allowed to take on the 8-9 molds which is the max if two people were in charge of the molds (we had only 16 molds then). After that I got married so my mum packed up the molds for storage, gave away the pit and that was the end of it…for the next couple of years that is.
So when my son and daughter joined us yesterday for their first exposure to kueh kapit (my daughter next to my sis-in-law as she folded the loveletters and my son in the kitchen beating the eggs with the sugar), I am reminded fondly that some things – tedious and time-consuming – are worth the effort and time. My mum joked about me inheriting the kueh kapit molds (we have about 20 of them) and making some during winter in France if we do go back… That should be interesting.
As my mum gets older, chances of her being the major domo in charge will lessen since it’ll get harder for her to sit for long hours. This year, the test was to see if I could lead the charge with her on a supervisory level. It would seem that kueh kapit making in my family is very much an apprenticeship of some sorts. You can’t just jump into the role as and when you like. I reckon Mum will still have a big say next year and my kids will help out in one way of another but you’ll see some signs that soon, she’ll make way and allow the tradition to be passed on to my children.
Perhaps in time, they’ll have their own stories to tell…