SACRED FOOD by Ching Y. Y.


A FULL BELLY IS OFTEN equated with happiness and contentment. In most Asian cultures, many hosts would take it quite personally if a guest were to leave with an empty stomach, and hence, would go to great lengths to ensure all are fed and fed well.

But we don’t turn to food merely to fill our bellies. What we eat also represents our belief systems and is often related to religious and cultural occasions. Food thus becomes not just nourishment for our bodies but also for our souls. It also serves as a medium through which social and familial bonds are strengthened.

Below (in no particular order), are just a few examples of how what we eat transcends more than just satisfying hunger pangs.

Rituals and offerings
The ‘miring’, is a ritual practiced by the Dayaks to honour the gods (Petara), holy spirits and ghost spirits (Orang Panggau and Bunsu Antu) and the souls of their ancestors (Petara Aki-Ini).

Common ‘piring’ or ritual offerings include cooked rice, glutinous rice, hardboiled eggs, raw eggs, tuak (traditional rice wine), tobacco, salt, betel nuts, and popped or puffed rice. Sometimes animal offerings are also carried out, with chickens being the sacrifice of choice for smaller ceremonies, and pigs for larger occasions.

‘Miring’ is held during significant occasions such as Gawai Dayak which marks the end of the harvest season.

Similarly, the Indian community marks the end of the harvest season by celebrating Ponggal, one of the biggest events in the Hindu calendar. On the first day of the Thai month, milk is placed in a claypot and cooked over an open fire with rice and sugar added later until the milk boils over, signifying overflowing happiness and a bountiful harvest for the family.

Customs and Practice
Chu hua yuan, the Teo Chew practice of biting a cooked chicken head, can herald an auspicious start to adulthood.

Literally translated as ‘leaving the garden’, this coming-of-age ceremony marks the end of childhood where participants who were under the care of their parents (like a garden), embark on the journey of adulthood and are entrusted with responsibilities and obligations as matured individuals.

Participants usually take part in ‘chu hua yuan’ when they are aged 15, but it is common for older children to participate as well. The ceremony is usually held on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It begins with the participants washing their faces with floral water to symbolise getting rid of bad luck and leaving their childish ways behind, before putting on new, red coloured t-shirts and red clogs.

As is common with many other Chinese ceremonies, there will also be eating of auspicious dishes symbolising aspirations and blessings for the participants. The highlight of the ceremony will see each participant biting the head of a steamed whole chicken.

This part of the ceremony is often attributed to a Teochew scholar, Lin Daqin, who lived during the Ming dynasty. As the story goes, Lin’s family was very poor so he could only wear red clogs, as opposed to better footwear, to school. One day, he met an elder who promised to give him a chicken if Lin could help him complete a couplet. The precocious boy did so, and happily took his prize home to his family. Lin’s father gave the boy the head of the cooked chicken to bite, in the hope that he would accomplish great things.

‘Chu hua yuan’ is a fading custom although there are efforts from various quarters, mostly Teochew clan associations, to keep the practice alive.

To give another example, in many Asian cultures, the humble chicken egg is a symbol of new life and fertility. It’s no surprise then that this pantry essential is at the centre of many Asian customs.

In Chinese culture, red-dyed hard boiled eggs are often featured in full moon celebrations, a get-together to mark one month since a baby’s birth and the end of the mother’s confinement period. Traditionally, the gathering is also to formally introduce the baby to extended family and friends.

The colour red in Chinese culture represents luck, good fortune and blessings. In the old days, the eggs got their red colour from being wrapped in red paper and hard boiled, with the red colour seeping into the egg shell during the cooking process. Another method was to rub the wet red paper onto the eggs. Nowadays, food-safe dyes are used to impart the red colour instead. It is also believed that if the baby is a boy, one would give out an odd number of eggs, while for baby girls, it would be an even number



Ching YY believes having a good plan is half way to success but often takes the scenic detour because it’s more fun and enlightening, and she has a terrible sense of direction.

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