Chinese New Year, Days 8-15 and Cooking A Whole Fish

“The Jade Emperor is like the big poobah of Heaven.  The Kitchen God is like the snitch.”  -KMN

That pretty much sums it up, folks.  In traditional Chinese religions, the Jade Emperor is the ruler of Heaven, and the Kitchen God…well, the Kitchen God sits in the kitchen (surprise!) and watches over the daily activities of the family.  Each year, he reports to the Jade Emperor, who then decides whether the family should be rewarded or punished in the coming year.

The eighth day of the Chinese New Year is the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday.  At midnight  on this day (going into the ninth day), many people celebrate by burning incense and offerings to the Jade Emperor.  KMN and I live across the street from a large housing estate, and on this particular night, we saw at least 10 different groups of people in the small parking lot outside, lighting fires and burning incense and offerings.  Celebrations of the Jade Emperor’s birthday continue through the ninth and tenth days (details depend on heritage and religion), but in Singapore, they pass without much public recognition.

Apparently, on the thirteenth day of the new year, people eat vegetarian food, to cleanse their stomachs after nearly two weeks of eating and celebrating.  However, this isn’t a practice that I know from experience – it’s one that I read about during my CNY research, and I don’t think we actually ate vegetarian that day.  Ooops?

The holiday draws to a close with the celebration of Chap Goh Mei (literally, “the fifteen night”) on – you guessed it – the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year.  So maybe I lied when I said it was a two week holiday….it’s actually two weeks + 1 day.  Chap Goh Mei is also called a Lantern Festival (there is a different Lantern Festival in the fall), when people parade with lanterns, and hang them outside their homes to help guide wayward spirits home.

I'm married, though - so no phone number on this one...

I’m married, though – so no phone number on this one…

In some places -particularly Malaysia and Singapore, Chap Goh Mei is considered a kind of Chinese Valentine’s Day.  Apparently, long ago, this was the one time that young maidens were permitted to dress up and walk outside their homes (with chaperones).  Today, (supposedly) single women write their phone number on mandarin oranges, and throw them in a river or lake, while single men fish them out and eat them.  I don’t know what they do with the number.  I haven’t actually seen this happen in Singapore – and I somehow think that people would get arrested for littering, if they were caught throwing oranges into the Singapore River – but heck, Singaporeans, correct me if I’m wrong!

Sometimes, one branch of KMN’s family celebrates Chap Goh Mei with a big family dinner, but that didn’t happen this year.  Instead, KMN and I participated in URun 2013 in the early morning, did church/errands in the late morning, then relaxed and worked in the afternoon.   Then, KMN prepared us a two-person Chap Goh Mei dinner (not really, it was just regular dinner).

The smallest pomfret we could find.

The smallest pomfret we could find. You wouldn’t even know this guy is missing his innards (but he is). Just remember that the fish on display at the Fairprice fish counter aren’t gutted – but ask, and they’ll do it for you.

For weeks now, KMN has been talking about cooking a fish.  Like, not a pretty little fillet, but a genuine whole fish.  Now, I have no problem eating a whole steamed fish – this is a common preparation/serving style here.  I’ll discuss how to tackle that in another post one day.  But I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit leery of actually cooking a whole fish.  Growing up, my Mom cooked fillets.  But KMN’s Mom cooked a whole fish.  So I let him take charge – with a little help from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking (which I’ve written about before, here).

In a pan large enough to fit the fish – good thing we got a small fish (Note to self: Buy bigger pan!) – he brought some water to a boil, and added fresh ginger and a chopped onion.  Once the water reached a solid boil, he slid the fish in:

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so not too much interesting to see, except the pomfret fit popped up as soon as it hit the water.  Do you see it?!?  The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon.  More research will be required!

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so there’s not too much interesting to see, except the way that the pomfret’s fin popped up as soon as it hit the water. Do you see it?!? The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon. More research will be required!

He immediately turned the flame as low as it would go and covered the pan.  We let the fish cook for about 15-20 minutes (Kuo suggests cooking until a knife “goes in easily and no pinkish liquid seeps out”), then slid it onto a serving plate.  KMN served the fish with rice and blanched greens, and a selection of dipping sauces: soy sauce, chili sauce, and vinegar.

The fish came out really, really well – very soft and tender.  Pomfret isn’t a very fishy-tasting fish, and admittedly – most of the flavoring came from the sauces.  But this was an incredibly simple and nutritious way to prepare fish – I’m glad KMN headed the effort to try it.  I’ll definitely be preparing fish for us this way again soon!

And that, my friends, is the end of the Chinese New Year series of posts.  If you missed the earlier ones, click to read about Chinese New Year PreparationsReunion Dinner, Visiting Days 1 and 2, Chinese New Year Treats, and Chinese New Year Days 3-7.  And with that, we’ll return to non-CNY posting.  But don’t worry, I have plenty to share.  [I know you were really nervous about that, right?]

Have you ever thrown a mandarin orange into a body of water on Chap Goh Mei?

Have you ever cooked a whole fish?  How?

8 thoughts on “Chinese New Year, Days 8-15 and Cooking A Whole Fish

  1. Amy @ Writing While Running

    Question: Are fireworks well-regulated in Singapore? I would assume so. When I lived in Beijing one year, the entire 2 weeks surrounding new years was a disaster because I could not hear a thing with fireworks outside all the time. Even after a major building was BURNED DOWN due to fireworks that year, there was no regulation even though they were not supposed to be in the part of the city where I lived.

    1. Holly KN Post author

      Ohhhhh yes. Singapore is considerably bigger on regulation than China. 🙂 In fact, they specifically have “An Act to prohibit the possession, sale, transport, delivery, distribution, import or discharge of dangerous fireworks.”

      There are several big official fireworks displays during the New Year celebrations, but that’s all. Pretty much, the neighborhoods were quiet. Of course, open fires of offerings in the parking lot are totally fine… ?

      Did you get to participate/experience any of the festivities (besides the fireworks!) while you were there?

      1. Amy @ Writing While Running

        I figured Singapore was stricter than China! (Interesting side note: last year I interviewed at Yale for a position at NUS and learned a lot about Singapore in preparation).
        Aside from dodging fireworks in the streets, nothing was a big deal aside from maybe going to a temple park in the morning. After that, people just hang out together. All day. Sitting in someone’s house, eating lunch, watching TV, eating dinner, playing Mahjong. I would always have to come up with an excuse because sitting around and watching TV and eating a lot bore me. Other years I travelled and that was not that fun because EVERYONE travels during that time.

        1. Holly KN Post author

          In other words, with a different twist of fate, we could actually be running together in MacRitchie, instead of just getting to know each other in blog-land? Life is crazy!

          Hahaha – last year, KMN & I traveled to Japan toward the end of the holiday…it took us a day or two to realize why there were so many Chinese tourists everywhere!!

  2. Jean

    Oh, when you said snitch, I had grand visions of a Quidditch snitch in my head! But you mean the annoying kind of snitch.

    That fish (pomfret) is so cool-looking! But slightly intimidating. I’m not sure what I’d do if that ever showed up on my plate…

    1. Holly KN Post author

      Sorry for the false alarm there.

      And eventually, I’ll teach you how to deal with that bad boy. It’s actually really easy – but we dove into that bad boy so fast, I totally forgot to photograph it. Stay tuned, though…

  3. Silas

    I have been tempted to try to cook a whole fish during previous Chinese New Year celebrations we have held, but Megan hasn’t really been behind it, and I’m a bit leery of it, myself, so it has yet to happen. At least this looks easy, so maybe next year.

    1. Holly KN Post author

      Don’t be afraid – after KMN did it, I felt really stupid for avoiding it for so long. 🙂

      I really think that the biggest trick is making sure that they scale and gut the fish for you!! The rest is easy-peasy. We’re also going to try steaming one day soon – but that shouldn’t be much harder than this method!


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