As a child, the lead-up to Chinese New Year (CNY) was often a mixture of excitement and dread. As a public holiday in Malaysia, it meant having one or two days off from school to visit family and friends, collect money in ang pau (red packets), watch my aunts and uncles gamble and get on with their annual catch-ups while my siblings and I play with one another or our cousins.

But the period before CNY also meant an endless list of chores. In Chinese tradition, you must clean the house before the first day of the new year. On the day itself, you aren’t supposed to throw anything out or you’ll be throwing away the good luck. This tradition had two benefits: one, my parents could enlist us with deep-cleaning the house with more vigour than the rest of the year, and two, the house would be spic and span for the revolving door of visiting guests that were visiting over the next few days. It was all worth it, though, for the food.

It was all worth it, though, for the food

I was accustomed to waking up early on the eve of CNY to the roar of cold ingredients being thrown into the smoking oil of a searing wok. My parents would already have been up for hours to start cooking for the reunion dinner – where immediate family members come together to herald the start of the new year. My mother took charge of food prep, chopping, dicing, slicing, peeling. My father became virtually chained to the wok, frying, braising, boiling, steaming. We were a Christian family, but during this time of the year, it was as though Zao Jun, the Chinese kitchen god, took possession of our home.

Together, they would churn out dish after dish, often in huge quantities so that they could be eaten in batches over the coming days or portioned out to be gifted when we visited other people’s homes. By the time reunion dinner began in the evening, the table would be laden with so many dishes that you could hardly fit everyone around it to eat – from the highly traditional vegetarian zhai choy (also known as Buddha’s Delight), to the very veggie-unfriendly Hakka zhar yoke, a braised pork belly with wood ear fungus dish and chestnuts that I adore, to stir-fried pork slivers, arrowroot and Chinese chives, whole steamed fish, sambal-stuffed fried fish, lotus root and peanut soup, and more.

Zongzi, steamed rice dumplings on wooden table bamboo leaves

Those loud, family-filled days are so distant now, resigned to the annals of my memory. We haven’t had a CNY like that in years, not since my parents separated and divorced, and my siblings and I gradually moved out into different homes and countries. My childhood home no longer exists the way I know it either, since it’s been sold. The last time I was there, in January 2023, I thought of how much use our little kitchen got in the 30-odd years we lived there. I wonder if it will be as well-loved and used by its new owners.

I moved to the UK permanently in 2019, and while I go about setting down roots here, I often think about those festive days and all of the food that was produced like magic from that kitchen. In 2020, during the Covid lockdown, I had time to be introspective. I decided to discover my own CNY traditions while taking it upon myself to study, learn and preserve the dishes my parents no longer cook.

Although both my parents cooked, it is my father who is largely the custodian of these recipes. Most of them reside in his head, and he pulls them out easily when he needs them, as if by muscle memory. Some live inside a slightly battered navy blue notebook, adorned with a light blue flower motif – in here, my mother’s feathery cursive script is the dominant feature. She was the one who recorded the many recipes passed down from both my maternal and paternal grandmothers or the one who copied from cookbooks or the back of packaging. This book contains more complicated recipes, like the one for lotus paste mooncakes, dense and rich with a salted duck egg yolk hidden inside like a prize; or zhong (also known as zongzi), a savoury glutinous rice dumpling that is so labour-intensive, my aunts and uncles would often join my father in making them.

Some recipes live inside a slightly battered navy blue notebook, adorned with a light blue flower motif

In 2021, when the UK government allowed us to have guests indoors, I decided to hold my first CNY dinner. I invited my cousin, who is half-Malaysian and half-Scottish, and my husband invited one of his friends. I asked my father for his recipes for whole steamed fish – which I figured would be simple enough to start with – and Hakka zhar yoke, my favourite dish that I associate with CNY. He sent haphazard instructions over WhatsApp. “Get some pork belly,” he wrote. “How much?” I wrote back. “Just enough for however many people you are having,” he replied, quite unhelpfully. I shot him more questions, trying to glean more detailed instructions out of him, but it’s difficult for a cook who relies on intuition rather than scales to generate anything more specific than “guess and see lah”.

After a bit of coaxing combined with some guesswork – “agak-agak”, as we say in Malaysia – I manage to cobble together the zhar yoke. It is the first time I have ever made it, all by myself, more than 6,500 miles away from my father. Following his directions, I soaked the dried wood ear fungus overnight before cutting them into bite-sized pieces; blitzed a huge amount of shallots and garlic into a paste that made my eyes smart; sliced pork belly into cubes and browned them; bit by bit, the dish came together and before I knew it, it had bubbled away for a couple of hours on the stove and was ready to eat.

To say I was nervous about tasting it was an understatement. What if I’d ruined it? The weight of this family recipe and all it represented bore down heavily on my shoulders as I stood in my tiny kitchen and raised a small chunk of pork belly to my mouth. As it melted on my tongue, I melted inwardly – and burst into tears, overwhelmed by how homesick I felt in the moment. At the time, Covid restrictions meant I had no idea when I could go home, and even if I did, my parents’ bitter separation meant CNY would never be the same. But my success in making this dish made me feel like I’d unlocked a secret; that I could still recreate some aspects of CNYs past, and in some way, recreate a time when my family was whole.

Chinese-style marinated steamed fish with spring onion

The other essential dish, whole steamed fish, is exceedingly simple but heavy with symbolism. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ (pronounced ‘yu’) sounds like the word for ‘surplus’, so fish is considered a symbol of abundance. Chinese people adore anything symbolic – the word for ‘chicken’ (‘ji’) is a homophone for ‘good luck’, while the word for ‘lettuce’ apparently sounds like the word for ‘becoming wealthy’.

A whole fish, served with the head and tail intact, symbolises a positive beginning and end for the year ahead. I’ve always seen it as a symbol of unity and wholeness. It reminds me of my family gathering around, using our chopsticks to flake off sections of the tender, white-jade flesh and serving it to one another. My father is fond of the eyeballs, my mother the cheeks. For me, it symbolises a time when my own family was whole. I serve it now at my own dinner table with a sense of reverie; longing for a time when the rubble of my family could be held together by this simple animal.

Last January, I returned home for the first time since moving to the UK in 2019. I was hit by a sense of urgency to preserve my family’s recipes when I saw how much my father had aged in those four years I had been away, chasing my dreams and focusing on my marriage. Shame washed over me for not coming home sooner to spend more time with him. My mother has aged too, of course, but we speak much more frequently - filial piety and guilt drive me to text her every day, and she had travelled to visit me only recently.

I’m also ashamed to say that my reluctance to get a welly on in asking for these childhood recipes is caused by a healthy fear over the sheer amount of labour some of them require. Take a mooncake, for example. According to his mother’s recipe, my father prepared the lotus paste filling from scratch - which begins with buying kilos of dried lotus seeds. They must be soaked, boiled and cooled before he set me to the task of peeling and splitting them apart to remove any green saplings that might have begun growing within, as they would spoil the paste by adding bitterness. As a child, my little hands were perfect for the job and I would sit at the sink for hours, until my fingers were shrivelled.

As a child, my little hands were perfect for the job

He then blitzes them into a pale, watery mess and starts to cook them down in the wok, adding sugar and maltose from a large decades-old glass jar that belonged to my grandmother. This takes an hour or so, and the mixture must be stirred almost constantly or it will burn at the bottom. Slowly, slowly, it transforms into a paste so thick it can be cut with a knife and moulded into balls, ready to be ensconced with pastry and patted into a wooden mould.

My sister and I took particular pleasure in this part. We would form a sort of factory line, my father weighing each ball of lotus paste and dough before passing it to my mother to roll out the dough and wrap the paste with it. Then either my sister or I would sprinkle flour into the mould so the dough doesn’t stick in the intricate details, squash the ball into it and then flip it over, knocking the mould on either side against our table to gently ease and coax the mooncake out. They would be baked till golden, in batches of four or five, and we set them out in rows to cool and admire.

As tired as even thinking about cooking mooncakes makes me, I feel a strong desire to continue the tradition as I become older myself. I long to get my hands on those wooden moulds and keep them in my possession. I wonder if that glass jar of maltose would survive a journey across the world so that I can stow it away in my kitchen? There is something about ageing that really drives home how important traditions are, even if they are a faff to maintain. They still feel precious.

A family Chinese New Year dinner

Preserving my family’s recipes feels like a calling now. Something inside me wonders if this is because it feels like a way to preserve my history, myself. This year, I chose to add my father’s jai choy recipe to my repertoire. Even as I write, all the ingredients that I need to start prepping two days before my CNY dinner are waiting, dried lily bulbs and shitake mushrooms that need soaking, fu chuk (tofu sheets) that need snipping, and Chinese leaf to chop. The lam yee (fermented bean curd) has been painstakingly sourced (ie. ordered via Sous Chef), ready to take me back to the CNYs of my childhood.

While I put the dishes together, I will think of how they are simultaneously new to me and yet so familiar. It’s like being in two places at once - I’m here, now, cooking something I’ve never made before, but I’m also there as my younger self, in my parents’ kitchen, knowing exactly how it’s made from watching them year after year. Their movements as they cooked their way through each recipe will be recreated in my own kitchen, the past meeting the future.