Chinese New Year traditions

A pencai made with love

Food is always serious business in the Cheong family and all the more so when Chinese New Year comes around.

That is when "masterchef" Suzanna Cheong - the nickname her husband and three children have for her - whips up an elaborate gourmet feast for the family's reunion dinner, which has always been held at their five-room HDB executive flat in Pasir Ris.

For the past three years, the family have been creating their own version of pencai by adding their favourite ingredients into the pot. Pencai is an all-in-one-pot dish usually filled with Chinese delicacies.

The Cheongs' take on the dish, however, may include Western elements such as roasted potatoes with herbs.

Mrs Cheong, a 58-year-old personal trainer, says this year's "Cheong pencai" will see roasted potatoes make a re-appearance, together with glutinous rice, herbal chicken, fish maw, braised spare ribs, broccoli, a fish head, homemade siew mai, abalone and fresh lily bulb.

She has the order and positioning of the various ingredients all figured out ("the fish head will be in the middle, the siew mai will surround it").

The kneeling and greetings and reunion dinner... are neither empty nor feel obligatory to us. What we do in our family, we do for love and for one another.

MS CHEONG MEI XI, on her family's Chinese New Year practices, which include making pencai filled with each family member's food contribution. With her are her sister, Mei Yan, mother, Mrs Suzanna Cheong, father, Mr Cheong Soon Kiat, and brother, Wei Ming

"It's going to have lots of heart and soul and will look and taste good," she says with confidence.

Her son, Wei Ming, 27, is contributing the herbal chicken to the pencai.

He likes it that everyone takes an active role in the meal preparation.

"We are taking ownership of this reunion dinner and it helps us to appreciate the meal more - we are not just eating what mum has made," says the civil servant.

Besides pencai, the family also gets to enjoy Mrs Cheong's homemade goodies and yusheng every year.

This year's yusheng rendition will see cornflakes being used in place of crackers and green mango and abalone being added into the mix of ingredients.

Beyond food, the children also have the practice of kneeling to offer tea, oranges and - in recent years after entering the workforce - hongbao to their parents.

It is something their parents have had them do since they were young, they say.

Their father, Mr Cheong Soon Kiat, 65, is a retired teacher.

The three of them also usually pen heartfelt personal messages in English to their parents on the red packets they give, after saying an auspicious Chinese New Year greeting in Mandarin.

Younger daughter, Mei Yan, 24, an assistant e-marketing manager, says that because the family does not speak Mandarin at home, she and Wei Ming are "hopeless" at the greetings.

"We just end up siphoning phrases from our older sister, Mei Xi."

Civil servant Mei Xi, 30, is thankful for the traditions that her family has held on to all these years. She says: "The kneeling and greetings and reunion dinner may sound like just tradition to some, but they are neither empty nor feel obligatory to us. What we do in our family, we do for love and for one another."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'A pencai made with love'. Print Edition | Subscribe