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Ching Ming and a Walk in the Mountains
Holidays and Celebrations
Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 8 and 18
Every year at the cemetery, my grandmother insisted that incense be completely lit and smoking. Now and then I would get a fat candle inserted into my bunch of incense or joss sticks. But our incense was not for scents or mood-making. It was not as aromatherapy. It was the equivalent of lighting candles in church; and it was a bad omen if the incense did not burn all the way down. My fat waxy-red candle was shaped like a punk or a tall sausage-like weed found growing in the swampy woods, as I recall from when we went camping. At that time, I believed that was where incense grew.
On those brisk days, my mother’s side of the family joined together at the cemetery for our annual family picnic to pay homage to my maternal grandfather. We would gather, graves would be cleaned and weeded, and food and drink ceremonially offered.
Granted, I had no idea of the actual name, nor purpose of this event until adulthood. And even then, I thought it was a unique family event rather than a tradition carried on by the Chinese for centuries. For most of my life, I simply referred to it as the 'picnic in the cemetery.' It was not until much later that I learned this was a cultural ritual upheld by generations of dedicated people. I learned it was carried on beyond nations and borders with more significance than religion, and that it symbolized ultimate filial piety. It was a responsibility expectantly carried out by the eldest son and referred to as hang san, or a 'walk in the mountain.'
The night before, pseudo-gold bars were folded 3-D origami-style and strung together like popcorn at Christmas. Elaborate paper creations were often custom-made for the wealthy and superstitious. There was special paper money that had 'Hell Bank Note' printed in the same space where 'In God We Trust' is written on real money. Allegedly, the English word 'Hell' was introduced to China by Christian missionaries. Through misunderstandings in language and culture, 'Hell' came to mean the afterlife, not eternal damnation.
At the cemetery, these celestial dollars were burned along with the paper gold bars; both in a special metal drum. They were an offering for the dead that upholds beliefs shared by many Chinese. Their remains need material goods beyond life on Earth.
The area just below my maternal grandfather’s headstone was kept clear for incense. A cloth was laid before the headstone. Three tiny porcelain Chinese teacups were set out and sparingly doused with Johnny Walker Red which was poured into the earth followed by three bows. They were refilled with black tea from my grandmother’s battered but reliable thermos. The tea watered the soil like the whiskey before it. It, too, was topped off with three bows. Johnny Walker remains a staple in Chinese culture, especially at weddings where there is no open bar, just an open bottle of whiskey that nobody ever seems to drink.
Below our 'graveyard wet bar' was an array of plastic bowls and paper plates piled high with my grandmother’s cooking. She was a clever, palatable cook. She had effortlessly made the most divine country-style dishes from her humble region in the countryside of Guangzhou. Her marbled tea-soaked eggs, halved with the shells on, were cleverly stacked in a bowl. Another plate held a stack of roast pork, sliced and glistening. A bright and colorful vegetable dish sometimes appeared with steeped tofu and huge black mushroom caps; all were clad in sheets of wrinkled tin foil.
There was always a whole steamed chicken complete with head and feet, spare parts included literally, not to mention the rice bowls and chopsticks—-always three sets. And oranges. Big, bright oranges would pyramid out of an impossibly small bowl. The scent in the air was an ironic mixture of musty soy sauce, strong sesame oil, herbal mushrooms, sugar, anise, ginger, whiskey, tea, and burning incense; like a kitchen on fire.
My sisters and I came to the far side of the grave one by one. Each of us was armed with a bundle of burning sticks and each of us dutifully bowed three times. This was called 'kowtowing.'
I never understood the meaning until I looked up the word and learned that these actions were deep respectful bows combined with groveling. Three. It is a magic number. When it was my turn to kowtow, I would perform three awkward bows, hoping not to tip over in the act. I always looked around for approval of the spot I had chosen to secure my smoking sticks--and secure was the key word. If they did not stand tall, upright, and in harmony with the wind to encourage burning rather than smoldering, it was heresy, but there was an ulterior motive, to keep the ash out of the food so we could eat it later.
The next step was to carefully maneuver around the ground-buffet offering of food, slip a hand in between the food and the burning joss sticks without catching on fire, pour out the shots of Johnny Walker, refill, and chase it into the ground with black tea, bowing three times in between. There was a method to this. I had to pour each cup in succession. My grandmother would chant a deep-throated mantra in Cantonese at various times. This was completely foreign to me and my Anglo-Mandarin. The final step was to re-maneuver myself to carefully refill the teacups for the next person, without overfilling or spilling.
The egg tart remains the one thing I look forward to every year at this traditional ritual common to Chinese immigrant families. (This is not to suggest that I only eat them annually.) My aunt was always a reliable source for stopping in Chinatown beforehand and arriving with an assortment of dim sum: pork buns, dumplings, and of course, egg tarts. These treats arrived in bright pink cardboard bakery boxes tied with peppermint-striped cotton string, secured with an impossible knot. There were never enough for everyone, so first come meant first fed.
For me, these tarts remain as worthy as their gold color promises to taste. The rich yellow filling teases me, slightly invert with a shiny slick on top. It softly bends and shows off its true flexibility. The thick crust has a hint of pale-golden color and is clad with a million delicate flaky layers peeking out of its rim. The rest is safely shielded by the armor of tin that helps shape, bake, and protect it. The flaky layers are traditionally separated by a lard-based fat that creates pockets in the dough.
Now when I make them, I change the classic tart slightly with my own addition of butter for richer flavor. The egg custard filling is poured in and the tarts are baked. I love how they smell, slightly sweet and fresh, like a bakery. When I opt to purchase them, they are sold paired and ingeniously inverted, to protect the filling, stuffed into little waxed bags, one couple at a time, then stacked.
I love to imagine biting into the soft custard, slightly creamy and lightly sweet. As a child I only ate the filling and left a baby-tooth-scraped lined row in the soggy pastry for any passing adult not willing to waste it. Due to my naive technique of eating the custard filling first, if I attempted to finish the pastry, I was left with dry clumps of dough stuck so well to the roof of my mouth that only my mother could dislodge them. It took me years to love the crust. It was not until I figured out that both crust and filling were meant to be eaten together—-how clever.
The egg custard tart was and still is a staple at dim sum everywhere. No egg custard tart meant it was so great that it sold out quickly, or the lack of authenticity of the restaurant. Over the years, the tart has modified from a single serving unit to three tartlettes. This evolution has been well-thought-out since we are often full from a large meal, and dim sum was meant to be little bites. Therefore the mini-egg-tart is a welcome change.
One interesting thing is that I have never seen an egg tart larger than a single serving, unlike most other cakes and pastries. This Chinese sweet sports a unique name, dan tat. Dan means egg and tat, well, the letter R is notoriously difficult to pronounce for Chinese and so the 'egg tart' or 'dan tat' is a beautiful example of successful fusion—better yet, evolution.
The best part of this annual custom is that the food is consumed at the end. The torturous part is waiting until the conclusion of the ceremony, staring at the food with great anticipation and salivation. It is at this time when the ancestors have feasted and drunk, that the living can finally dine. Although the food is traditionally cold, it is still very edible, deliciously so. And egg tarts always taste good to me.
Though the holiday of Ching Ming is past, it does come again every year. So practice my recipe and you will be ready. Also, do taste several different ones at different Chinese dim sum emporia. That will allow you to adjust yours to make a product closest to the one you like the best.
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