Hello, friends! Yesterday I had a chance to visit the Chap Goh Meh celebrations at the Esplanade in Penang and I want to tell you a little bit about this Chinese cultural celebration. Obviously, being from ethnic Indian origin it's quite the cultural experience for me as well, despite being born and raised in Penang.
Interestingly, the reason I wanted to make this year's celebration a blog post is because I was asking a few Hokkien Chinese friends about Chap Goh Meh and they didn't seem to know much about why it is celebrated. So I've taken it upon myself to eat errr I mean research all the necessary information.
A Traditional (ish) Dinner
Chap Goh Meh translates to "15th night" in Hokkien and traditionally marks the end of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. In parts of China, particularly the south, it's celebrated as the Lantern Festival. It's done just a bit differently depending on which ethnic Chinese community and clan you come from, but in general, it still marks the conclusion of the new year celebrations as well as an opportunity for young people to meet a prospective partner.
Before we get into all that, I have been informed that a traditional dinner is common before heading out for the celebrations. As I'm not part of any Chinese clans (I'm open to invitations you guys), I decided to head out and see if I could emulate part of the traditional Chinese Chap Goh Meh meal at Hong Kee Wantan Noodles. Unfortunately, they were out of crispy fried pork knuckles which is a common favourite. So instead, I had the Pork Knuckles braised in Vinegar as well as a delicious, satisfying bowl of Char Hor Fun.
One of the uncles at the shop mentioned that this was normally a two person meal I'd just had on my own, and so we're off to a good start.
Love (and Oranges?) at the Esplanade
Picture this romantic scenario: The cool sea breeze blowing against your hair, the tropical island sky blushing pink in the evening, you're ready for true love. So you buy some oranges and write your number on them. Then you throw them in a basket. Then, you go home. Later, a guy calls you because he liked your oranges (not a euphemism). ROMANCE ACHIEVED!
It might sound a little bizarre in the age of swiping right on pictures of strangers, but Chap Goh Meh used to be an important part of meeting a life partner. Young women would write their details on oranges and gently float them down the river for young men to find. Presumably, this was more popular than simply throwing the oranges at them with force. These days, you might think most people do this as a symbolic way to remember their culture. But if you visit the Chap Goh Meh celebrations, you'll see that people are quite serious about it. Hopefully, a lot of happy new couples after this year's orange extravaganza.
On a serious note, the Chap Goh Meh celebrations are an important community event. For one, it's a way to keep traditional practices and cultural beliefs alive, especially for a migrant community that is so far away from their point of origin. Despite the fact that the local celebrations have evolved and started to branch out from the original practices back in China, it's a focal point for the community to reiterate and sometimes redefine who they are and how they see themselves.
Secondly, celebrations like these really bring together people from all walks of life and ethnicity here in Malaysia. I was really happy to see that it wasn't just the Chinese community celebrating Chap Goh Meh, but it's become a shared celebration that everyone here partakes in. As someone who's really passionate about food and the cultures that make them, it's really exciting to be part of this process of intermingling as it is happening.
Food from Every Corner
One of the great things about any cultural celebration in Penang - there's always food. Beautiful, delicious food. I opted for desserts since I'd had a big dinner.
One of the first things I got was apom balik, which is like a folded pancake garnished with crushed roasted peanuts and palm sugar. It's sweet and creamy and has a nice crunch to it because of the peanuts. The name "balik" in the name literally means "turned over" in Malay, which illustrates the fact that this apom is folded unlike the myriad other types of apom we have. I got mine from a Chinese vendor, and Malay vendors in Penang tend to also include sweet corn with their apom balik.
One of my favourite things is pork and salted fish bao. It's a soft, delicate bun with steamed pork and salted fish inside. Sometimes the bao is steamed, but this vendor also grills it on a hot pan with ghee (clarified butter) for an extra crisp and buttery flavour. The aroma from the bao grilling in the ghee was pure buttery heaven.
If you want to learn more about my Chap Goh Meh journey, I posted a bunch of fun videos on our Instagram page. I'll also be sure to post more pictures there as well so you can get a sense for the lights and colours and tastes of Chap Goh Meh. Did you have a chance to visit the celebrations? Let us know your experience in the comments!
For more of Penang tradition and culture, you can read our blog post about the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.