Maybe I am becoming sentimental in middle age, but the best hongbao I received this Chinese New Year was a visit from my sister, who lives in Australia.
Mei's visits are always too short. Half the time, she has to work from her company's Singapore office.
But there is less of that this trip, probably because of Chinese New Year, and that means we get most of her attention.
Most years, it is just my parents and me for reunion dinner.
This year, the complete Tan family sits around the table and talks non-stop. Yes, there are phone calls and text messages between visits, but they are never the same.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: PIG TROTTER BEEHOON
•One 397g can of pork leg with mushrooms
•One 397g can of stewed pork
•400g beehoon (rice vermicelli)
•6 to 8 cloves garlic 1 small head green cabbage, about 500g
•3 small carrots, about 300g in total
•4 to 5 large red chillies
•2 Tbs cooking oil
•2 Tbs oyster sauce
•120g cooked chestnuts
•White pepper to taste
•Salt or light soya sauce to taste
•Fried shallots for garnish (optional)
•Sambal belacan for serving (optional)
1. The night before cooking the dish, place the cans of pig trotter and stewed pork in the refrigerator.
2. The next day, place the beehoon in a large mixing bowl and cover with room-temperature tap water. Make sure the noodles are submerged and let soak for 30 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
3. Peel the garlic and chop finely.
4. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, cut the head of cabbage in half. Cut out and discard the root. Cut into strips about 0.5cm wide. Peel the carrots, slice crosswise on the diagonal. Stack the slices and cut into thin strips.
5. Slice the chillies thinly crosswise on the diagonal. Cut off and discard the roots of the scallions. Cut the scallions crosswise into 4- to 5cm-long pieces.
6. Remove the cans of pork from the refrigerator, open them and, using a teaspoon, scoop out the white, solidified fat that has risen to the top. Drain the beehoon.
7. Place a wok or large frying pan over medium high heat. Add the cooking oil. When it is hot, add the carrots and stir-fry about one minute. Add the garlic and stir-fry about 30 seconds or until fragrant, but not burnt. Add the cabbage, stir well to mix with the carrots and garlic. Add the oyster sauce and stir-fry until the cabbage is completely wilted.
8. Scoop the pork into the wok with a spoon, let cook until the jellied stock melts. Add the chestnuts and stir well. Add white pepper to taste.
9. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the drained beehoon to the wok and mix well with the other ingredients using a pair of cooking chopsticks or tongs. Cook until the beehoon has soaked up the liquid. If the noodles seem dry, add a little water or chicken stock. Have a taste and add salt or light soya sauce if needed.
10. Add the sliced chillies and scallions, mix well and cook another two to three minutes. Transfer into a large serving bowl or claypot. Sprinkle fried shallots (if using) over the noodles. Serve immediately with belacan (if using).
Serves six to eight
This mushiness is surprising to me because my sister and I spent most of our growing-up years fighting.
We are both so different that our friends can barely believe we are related. Some of them are convinced she is the older sister, although I have three years on her.
Sharing a room with her is a nightmare because she is messy, while I am neat.
We do not like the same music growing up and I sneer at the Mandopop ditties she listens to.
She speaks fluent Mandarin, I can barely make it through a conversation without resorting to English.
At some point in my life, I am proud of this. Now, I think of it as a major handicap.
Oh, and the bizarre thing is that we went to the same primary and secondary schools.
Mei makes friends easily. I am much more guarded.
Even our jobs are at odds with our personalities. She is a corporate lawyer and works on complicated deals. But outside of that, she is chill and relaxed.
I work in a creative job where some messiness is tolerated. Except I am not that way at all. I approach tasks and assignments methodically and that spills into my personal life.
Everything in my home is squared away. I do not like mess of any kind - physical or metaphorical. I am almost never chill and relaxed.
We both studied abroad in different countries and the irony is that we became closer with all that distance between us.
And as I get older, I have come to appreciate this: Family is what matters most.
So, celebrating Chinese New Year with my little family all in one place is a wonderful gift. Our mother hatches elaborate meal plans and her fridge is stuffed. But I want to give her a break and hit on the idea of making a childhood favourite of ours - pig trotter beehoon.
Before people became aware - and afraid - of cholesterol, rice vermicelli fried with supremely oily canned pork was a pleasure and never a guilty one. My mother would make it whenever she felt like it and I loved tucking into the noodles glistening with pork fat.
I want to recreate the dish the way we used to eat it, but lose my nerve.
After all, my sister and I are not getting any younger and gone is the time when we can eat with abandon and get away with it.
Some things remain the same, however.
I use the Narcissus brand of canned pig trotter and stewed belly pork for the noodles.
The big difference is that the night before cooking, I stick both in the refrigerator. The next day, I open the cans and use a teaspoon to scoop out every bit of the snowy white fat that rises to the top.
The noodles are moistened with the jellied gravy from the pork and not with the fat.
My mother would toss a handful of greens into her version, but I decide to load mine with vegetables: green cabbage, carrots, scallions and, for good measure, sliced red chillies because I love the mild heat they impart.
Another new addition is chestnuts, which some hawker stalls that serve the dish use.
I get the cooked kind - they are handy for things such as turkey stuffing and rice dumplings - from supermarkets. Just tear open the pack and let them tumble into the wok.
The flavourings are simple. Lots of chopped garlic, a little oyster sauce, white pepper and the distinctive, unforgettable taste of canned pork.
Now, the most important part of the dish is perhaps the beehoon. Some brands turn to mush when cooked.
Telling people to "look for the brand with chillies" is unhelpful because there are many brands which feature chillies on the packaging. "Two chillies" is also useless, as there are permutations of that too.
The brand I use is Tai Sun, which stands up to soaking.
"Good," says my mother as we tuck into the noodles. I would like to claim all the credit, but I suspect it is extra delicious because of the company.
And just like that, my sister is back in Australia.
I'm thinking of what I can cook for her the next time she's here.
We love our mother's pork chops and it has been ages since she made it. That will be my next project.