Almost every culture in the world has a holiday honoring the departed. In Japan there’s Obon, in Mexico there’s Día de los Muertos, and Catholics around the world celebrate All Souls’ Day. In China, and ethnically Chinese communities around the world, there’s the Hungry Ghost Festival. Since Singapore is such a melting pot of various culinary traditions, I enlisted the help of my friend Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of A Tiger In The Kitchen to tell us more about how the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in Singapore. She’s also shared a recipe for her aunt’s Teochew braised duck (see end of post).
Q: What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
A: The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated by Chinese in many countries — it begins the night of the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. On that night, some Chinese believe that the gates of heaven and hell open and the dead are released and allowed to roam the earth for a month. At this time, people will often burn offerings of incense, paper money and material goods such as houses, cars (with chauffeurs even!) and even modern items such as faux Louis Vuitton purses and cellphones. One of the key components of this festival is food — if you don’t want the ghosts to wreak havoc on your lives, you need to feed them. So at this time you’ll often see offerings of oranges, tea and other food set out on sidewalks to honor the dead. There are also some paper offerings of food that people may burn.
Q: What sets the Singaporean Hungry Ghost Festival apart from the festival celebrated in China?
A: The festival is celebrated similarly in both China and Singapore — Chinese in both countries both do offerings of food and burn “Hell” bank notes to appease the ghosts. In Singapore, the festival is also marked by homespun outdoor concerts called “getai.” These usually take place in residential neighborhoods — a temporary stage is set up, usually in a field, and comedians, dance and Chinese opera troupes and singers of songs in Mandarin, Hokkien (also known as Fukienese) or Teochew will perform to entertain the ghosts and people.
Q: Why is food such an important part of the Hungry Ghost Festival?
A: The belief is that these ghosts are rather disgruntled — and hungry. So if you want them to leave you alone, you need to feed them. On the 14th day of the lunar month, for example, Chinese families typically prepare a large feast for the ghosts. It’s also often a time of a family reunion of sorts as this is when families will gather to pay respects to and feed their loved ones in columbariums or temples. Temples at this time are filled with relatives of the deceased who have prepared their favorite foods and brought them as offerings. (When I visited my late grandmother — the legendary pineapple tart maker — during the seventh month when I was last in Singapore, I brought her the largest pineapple I could find.)
These temple spreads are typically only vegetarian — noodles, tea, stir-fried vegetables — out of respect for Buddha. But additionally, my family often makes braised duck, Teochew-style, at this time, as this was a dish my late grandmother loved and used to make. We also make rice cakes encased in a glutinous skin that has been dyed pink for luck. (White is the color of death while red and pink are lucky colors.) These rice cakes, called “peng kway,” which literally means rice cake in Hokkien and Teochew, are filled with rice that’s been stir-fried with shallots, peanuts and garlic so it’s incredibly flavorful. After the ghosts have “eaten” — you usually need to let the food sit for at least half an hour so the ghosts have a chance to eat it! — just whip out some garlicky chili sauce and dig in to those rice cakes.
Q: What makes Singapore one of the most food-obsessed cities in the world?
A: We always say that Singaporeans don’t eat to live, we live to eat. And it’s true, largely because Singapore has a truly unique cuisine that’s hard to find — done well — outside of the country. It’s a centuries-old fusion cuisine that began when the British established a trading port there and invited traders from Europe, India, China and all over Southeast Asia to settle there. Over time, the flavors from those different cuisines meshed in the kitchen — Singaporean cuisine is a lovely blend of all of them, often jazzed up with a lot of spice. One of my favorite breakfast dishes in Singapore, for example, is an Indian dish called Roti John — roti means bread and John is what Singaporeans used to call the British soldiers. This comprises a baguette sliced in half length-wise and then dipped in a beaten egg mixture that’s filled with Indian spices like garam masala as well as minced mutton. Once the bread is adequately coated, you fry it to a crisp, slice it up and serve it with hot chili sauce on the side — it’s essentially a savory Indian French toast. You can really see the blend of East (Indian flavorings) and West (baguette) in there.
The best places to eat in Singapore are hawker centers, which are essentially very inexpensive outdoor food courts. Each of these food courts is filled with individual hawker stands that each tend to specialize in one — or at the most a handful — of dishes. And often, that hawker has spent 20 or 30 years making that same dish over and over each day — so he’s a real expert. It’s going to be almost impossible to replicate that in your own home. As a result, Singaporeans will spend hours debating where to find the best Hainanese chicken rice, savory Chinese carrot cake or peppery pork rib soup — and we think nothing of driving halfway across the country just to have a $3 plate of fried noodles.
Q: In your book A Tiger in the Kitchen, you go on a personal journey back to Singapore to learn about your family’s culinary heritage after living in the US for almost half your life. What was your inspiration?
A: I was born in Singapore and I grew up there — as a child, however, as much as I loved to eat, I always resisted learning how to cook. I saw it as something that my grandmothers had had to do — learn to cook in order to be good wives — and I rebelled against that, choosing to emulate the men in my family, who were allowed to have careers, instead. (My mother blamed this rebellion on the fact that I was born in the year of the Tiger — a ferocious and headstrong sign!) After I had lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, however, I started to miss home — and what I missed was the food I had grown up eating…my maternal grandmother’s popiah, which is a Hokkien summer roll filled with julienned jicama sauteed with shrimp, tofu, peanuts and fried eggs, my paternal grandmother’s scrumptious pineapple tarts — sunflower-like cookie comprising a buttery shortbread base topped with home-made pineapple jam. I realized with great regret that while I managed to churn out beautiful cakes and delicious lasagnas in my Brooklyn kitchen, I had absolutely no idea how to make these dishes, the dishes that had defined my childhood and also the identities of the women of my family.
So I decided to take a leap and journey home after all these years away to get to know the women in my family and to finally reclaim my culinary heritage and let them teach me how to “be a woman” — but doing it on my own terms.
It was also an essential bit of culinary anthropology, I believed — every family makes a dish differently and how each person makes a dish really says something about the culture and that family’s life at a certain time. (For example, salted vegetable and duck soup is one of my family’s hallmark dishes — it’s a Teochew dish that was borne out of poverty, really. The vegetables are salted as that was the best way to preserve them.) I felt that if I didn’t learn and write down these recipes of my grandmothers, my aunts and my mother, once they passed, this chunk of my family history would be gone forever.
Q: How has the festival changed since you were a child?
A: The festival has remained largely the same — except that I’ve noticed that the burned paper offerings have become a lot more luxe! When I was a child, multi-story houses and Mercedes Benzes with chauffeurs were the epitome of luxury. These days, you’ll find stores filled with faux Gucci handbags, the latest styles of laptops and trays of sashimi — all made of paper, ready to be burned for your ghosts.
Recipe: Aunty Alice’s Teochew Braised Duck
- 1 whole duck
- 10 to 15 thick slices of peeled galangal (Ginger can be used as a substitute.)
- 15 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly bashed
- 3-4 tablespoons of five spice powder
- 3-4 tablespoons of salt
- 3-4 tablespoons of sugar
- 1 Chinese rice bowl (slightly over 1 cup) of dark soy sauce (Add more if you like the taste of soy sauce.)
- Trim duck, cutting off its head, behind, nails and feet, if you’re not planning on eating the feet. Wash it thoroughly inside and out.
- Mix together five spice powder and salt and rub it all over the outside and inside of the duck. Transfer to refrigerator and let it marinate for at least two hours.
- Heat a large wok over low heat, add sugar, stirring until it melts. Add galangal and garlic, frying the mixture until it is brown. Add dark soy sauce.
- Then, lightly rinse the marinated duck — this will make the end product less salty. Slide the duck into the wok then coat the top of the duck with gravy and turn over. Add enough water so that the liquid comes up to the halfway mark of the side of the duck. Bring the mixture to a boil and cover.
- Uncover and turn the duck over every 15 minutes before covering again. After 50 minutes to an hour, take a chopstick and see if you can poke it through the fleshiest part of the duck. If the chopstick goes through fairly easily, the duck is ready. If not, cover and continue boiling until the chopstick pokes through easily.
- Once it’s ready, turn off the heat and let the duck sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Then, slice it up and serve it with rice, with the sauce on the side.
Number of servings (yield): 2-3
*Note: Dark soy sauce can be purchased in many Chinatowns in U.S. cities.
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.