Today is Chap Goh Meh, the fifteenth and last day of Chinese New Year. In the old days, this is celebrated on a much larger scale. It’s after all the Chinese Valentine’s Day, the only day that young maidens in Penang were allowed to leave their home and stroll down Gurney Drive for all and sundry to gawk at and admire. If hearts went a-twittering, then marriage proposals were sent out.
And let’s not forget the tradition of throwing oranges into the sea, wishing for the dream partner.
It’s a nice quaint story, and I have actually interviewed old people in Penang who partook in these traditions when they were young and single. They remember those days fondly – maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe all old days are good (I am already at that stage).
A tradition that is less well-known because it’s not so romantic and certainly doesn’t make for such compelling recollection is the serving of bubur cha cha on Chap Goh Meh.
Bubur cha cha is a sweet dessert made of coconut milk, with steamed dainty diamond-shaped steamed yam, sweet potatoes (in yellow, orange and purple), tapioca flour chunks, sago and black-eyed peas. Some people coat banana (Pisang Raja) with syrup before adding them into their bubur cha cha, but traditionalists would call this pengat rather than bubur cha cha.
A bowl of bubur cha cha is a pretty sight with its myriad of colours. It’s also one of the best-loved Peranakan dessert because it’s sweet and lemak, and the various root vegetables so more-ish in that concoction. The contrast in textures – the soft potatoes, the chewy tapioca pieces, the crunchy black-eyes peas and the slithery sago – also make downing bowls of bubur cha cha a pleasure.
In Penang Hokkien patois, bubur cha cha is pronounced bubur che che – and che che means lots or abundance. So, it’s considered auspicious to distribute bubur cha cha to family and friends. Not many people still practise this tradition, although some do still cook bubur cha cha for offerings on the ancestral table on this day.
My aunt cooked a simplified version of bubur cha cha (minus black-eyed beans and fun colourful tapioca flour chunks, but she added bananas) today to celebrate Chap Goh Meh, and distributed them to her neighbours. Her Cantonese neighbours do not know of such a tradition but they are happy for the treat because it’s hard to find good bubur cha cha in Kuala Lumpur.
The version here is mostly made of thin watery coconut milk, and the potato and yam pieces are all mushy because the hawkers take the easy way out and boil everything in a pot.
Even in Penang, there isn’t that many places that still sell good bubur cha cha. I always have my fill of bubur cha cha, bubur gandum, and bubur pulut hitam at the stall behind the Swee Kong coffee shop opposite the Pulau Tikus police station.
The best bubur cha cha is still the ones cooked in homes by old Nyonya ladies who is generous with the coconut milk (so that the bubur is “kilat” (has a shiny sheen)), and who would painstakingly cut up the yam and sweet potatoes in bite-sized pieces.
BUBUR CHA CHA
(Serves 8, and enough to distribute to neighbours)
1kg of yellow and orange sweet potatoes
1 medium yam
2 1/2 litres of water
2-3 daun pandan leaves, knotted
2 cups of sugar, adjust according to taste
1/2 cup of sago
Thick milk, from 2 coconuts
Peel the root vegetables. Cut them into bite-sized chunks, and steam for 10-15 minutes until soft (but not mushy).
Bring the water to a boil, and add the pandan leaves and sugar.
Then, add the sago (do not soak beforehand).
Lower the heat to medium, and bring the water to a boil. By then, the sago pearls should have turned translucent.
Add the yam and sweet potatoes, and bring to the boil again.
Then, turn the heat down low, and add the coconut milk.
Stir to mix, and turn off the heat as soon as the mixture starts bubbling gently.
You might also like other Peranakan recipes: