Monday, 6 February 2012

Chap Goh Meh and the pungat (or pengat)

Today is the 15th day of the Chinese New Year. Tonight, the people of George Town will be going into another celebratory mood for Chap Goh Meh (literally meaning "15th night"). In the past, Chap Goh Meh used to be the time when shy damsels of marriageable age are allowed by their families to don their jewelleries and dress up in their finest clothes before being chaperoned on a slow spin - sometimes, many spins - around the town. Eligible young bachelors gawked in admiration at them. Should a damsel take interest in any of the bachelors, she would throw an orange to him. It was actually a code to say that she wouldn't mind being approached by a matchmaker from the bachelor's family. That's the romantic view of Chap Goh Meh.

You don't see such subtleness nowadays. Shy, sweet damsels no longer throw oranges at their would-be husbands. The romance has been lost from Chap Goh Meh. Many, many years ago, realising that this orange-throwing tradition could be a culture of the past, the state government started promoting this as a tourist event on Chap Goh Meh. Throw an orange and make a wish. Success in your work? No problem. Passing examination? No problem too.  Any wish is possible.

There's now even an orange-throwing competition, most probably to gauge who can throw the most oranges away. Women of all ages, young and not-so-young alike, would turn up to dispose of their oranges. The main point of congregation in the past used to be the Esplanade but I don't know where they go nowadays. Perhaps it's still there or perhaps ithe focus is now the Straits Quay. All I can say is that it is no longer a dainty throw out of the window of a slow-moving car but a potent weapon in the hands of any Amazonian-like female. A hefty throw could land any unsuspecting victim into the outpatient ward of a hospital.

Ah, the pungat. Another tradition of Chap Goh Meh is the cooking of the delectable pungat. Ordinary folks would call it bubur cha-cha but they don't know any better. It is actually us, the descendants of the Baba Nyonya folks in Penang, who will call this sweet dish the pungat or pengat. Even the peranakans of Singapore have tried copying it but failed. To my mind, the bubur cha-cha is a poor copy cat version of the pungat. It is so watered down that we'd sniff at eating it at Chap Goh Meh.

My family's pungat is the real stuff of Baba Nyonya culture. As far as I can remember, my maternal grandmother was already cooking this in the 1950s. No doubt she learnt it from her mother or mother-in-law. And it has been handed down from one generation to another ever since.

It comprises the richest ingredients and the richest colours. No ordinary bananas are used but only the best pisang raja goes into making this dish. Then it will also be adorned with generous chunks of yam and of course, the yellow, orange and purple colours of three types of sweet potato, all cooked in santan or coconut milk. One taste of the pungat will often make our visitors yearn for more but this is our once-a-year speciality! One thing for sure, diabetics and cholesterol-challenged folks better watch how much they consume this stuff!

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