MY wife came home with a full moon gift pack. Her colleague’s baby girl had just passed the milestone. Everyone in the office contributed some money for a present and the gift pack was given in return as a token of appreciation.
In olden days, when the infant mortality rate was high, parents held back the proclamation of births until the babies turned one month old. The belief was that if the little ones crossed that threshold, they were likely to live on. The situation has changed with the advent of modern medicine but the tradition is still being practised as a formality.
The contents of the gift pack reflect how the cultures and traditions of the different ethnic communities here are intricately intertwined. There were two red eggs, a portion of nasi kunyit, a packet of chicken curry, two pieces of ang koo kuih and a small packet of pickled ginger. Red eggs are synonymous with birthday celebrations in Chinese culture.
Likewise, the ang koo kuih signifies longevity and is also integral on such occasions. It also plays a vital role in indicating the gender of the baby. Tortoise-shaped kuih with intricate motifs mean she is a girl while round and plain ones denote a boy.
Nasi kunyit and chicken curry are very much a Malay recipe adopted by the Chinese and Peranakan communities. Glutinous rice is steamed with turmeric, coconut milk and pepper corns. Its bright yellow colour symbolises royalty and greatness. Chicken curry proves to be a perfect complement to the special rice, which is served only during events of great significance.
During the one-month confinement period, the recuperating mother will be put on a strict diet. Ginger is the one ingredient used generously in almost all the food together with sesame seed oil. Both are believed to expel wind, keep the body warm and hasten the postpartum recovery process.
Excited fathers have been known to buy ginger rhizomes by the kilo for this purpose. Most times, there would be plenty leftover, which are then sliced thinly and pickled with vinegar and sugar. It is included in the gift pack to symbolically share the main ingredient from the mother’s confinement diet.
I always look forward to a full moon treat like this not because I am a glutton but to revel in the joy of such an occasion. A new addition to the family of people we know is always a cause for celebration. After all, the new parents were generous in announcing a momentous event by giving out such delicious food and it is only proper for us, the recipients, to enjoy it.
This is a feast for me as it is not often I eat nasi kunyit with chicken curry although many Peranakan restaurants have them in their menu. In my mind, these two dishes are for observing important events like a baby’s full moon or Malay weddings, and having it outside those times just doesn’t feel right.
I recall a time when full moon gifts did not come in fancy boxes with each portion of the food nicely partitioned. On the contrary, the baby’s paternal grandmother would prepare everything from scratch. In the wee hours of the morning, she would cook the curry, steam the rice, boil the eggs and colour them, and later collect the kuih she had pre-ordered from the hawker in the market.
Many years ago, my cousin dropped by at our house one day to deliver his baby girl’s full moon gift. His car back seat was laden with pots and trays of full moon food to be given away. The food was apportioned on the spot and then placed into a black and red lacquer basket, which was used only to deliver gifts on auspicious occasions.
While waiting for my mother to transfer the food to our own crockery, my cousin sheepishly told us how he had carelessly driven over a pothole in his haste and spilt a good amount of the curry onto his car seat. This was a tribulation of new fathers of that era.
Nowadays, professional caterers have made it easier by pre-packing the food in attractive boxes and thus reducing the chances of spillage. Grandmothers also no longer need to wake up early to cook everything by themselves. How the times have changed.
As much as I love the nasi kunyit and eggs as a kid, my parents forbade me to even have morsels of it. Anything from the full moon gift was considered taboo. Partaking of them, they said, would make us less intelligent. Later on, I was only allowed to eat it if the entire platter was passed under the chair to drive away the supposedly bad vibes of the gift. Further questioning on the logic by the young inquisitive me would result in them shushing me up.
The most probable reason for this prohibition, I later discovered, was that giving birth and the confinement period was seen as unclean. Therefore, any gift from the family during this time was considered to bring bad luck. The same prohibition applied to food from funerals. Nevertheless, the rebel in me secretly enjoyed them when no one was looking. The hard-boiled eggs tasted best when eaten with soya sauce.
I like how we have assimilated elements from different cultures into significant events like this. Whether we realise it or not, it is a celebration of our diversity and proof that we can embrace and adopt practices of other communities without diluting our own identity. As we continue to weave our unique fibres into the tapestry we call Malaysia, we are collectively making this nation of ours richer in every way in the process.