By Prime Sarmiento
(Note: I always wanted to write a travel memoir and this post, which was first published in this blog two years ago, is my way of experimenting with this literary genre. I reposted it – edited, tightened up some sentences, and accompanied the post with some photos. And like before, I dedicate this post to my lil sis, the shobe who never forgets to buy tikoy for the family. Keong hee shobe! ).
Being more Filipina than Chinese (I’m a fifth generation Filipina Chinese from my mother’s side), our family celebrate the Chinese New Year quietly. We just go to church, then have lunch at Binondo (Manila’s Chinatown district), watch a lion dance in the street and cap the day with my mother buying almond jelly and other sweet breads in Salazar Bakery in Ongpin. We also drop by Eng Bee Tin shop (I love its violently-violet motif ) for its yummy ube hopia and (lately because both my parents are diabetic) sugar-free hopia.
But our Chinese New Year celebration won’t be complete without the boxes of “tikoy” – sweet cake made of glutinous rice and sugar, more known worldwide by its Mandarin name, “nian gao” which means New Year cake. (The word “tikoy” is the Filipino derivation of the Hokkien word “tee kueh” which means “sweet cake”).
Tikoy is perhaps our family’s signature Chinese New Year food. Our nanny will usually cut the round slab of tikoy into small rectangular pieces, dip them in egg yolk, and fry them for about five minutes. We have to eat them while it’s warm, soft and sweet – just enough to indulge our sweet tooth. But I don’t mind eating them cold too, as they’re chewy (although my mother will probably disagree with me on this).
We usually buy tikoy days before the onset of Chinese New Year. But because life has become so busy, we often find ourselves buying tikoy at the eve or on the day itself, jostling with dozens of people who also want to have their share of sweetness in this special day.
Tikoy is one Chinese New Year food that our family can’t live without. We buy tikoy in Chinese New Year for the same reason that we buy toys for our dozens of godchildren on Christmas – we have to give something on a special occasion, no matter what.
I can never recall the time that we don’t have tikoy in our table during Chinese New Year. Given that we live in Tondo, which is just a 15-minute drive away from the nearby district of Binondo, we can buy tikoy all-year round. But we never did that. We don’t buy tikoy beyond the Chinese New Year season (that’s between January and February). It’s as if buying and eating tikoy is a ritual that had to be performed at some auspicious date, or else it will lose its meaning.
I don’t know how and why this tradition started. All I know is that my mother’s family never really celebrated Chinese New Year (she said they were too busy minding their growing furniture shop), but they managed to eat loads of tikoy nevertheless as their Chinese business partners either give them fruit or boxes of tikoy. The tradition will live on as there’s always someone in the family – me, my siblings, my parents, one of my aunties – buying tikoy. My lil sis often say that there must be tikoy on Chinese New Year – as it’s good luck. Tikoy is considered a harbinger of wealth given its round shape that resembles one big gold coin. It is supposed to bring luck not only to the recipient but to the tikoy giver too.
When I lived in Singapore for several years, tikoy (along with sinigang and Varona’s vegetarian barbecue) is one food that I really missed. Which is really strange, considering that the Chinese New Year is perhaps the biggest holiday in Singapore as majority of its population are of Chinese descent. But I can’t find tikoy there and I (wrongly) assumed that tikoy must be a Filipino food invention (the same thing that there’s no such thing as lumpiang shanghai in Shanghai).
I will learn later, and when I was back in Manila, that of course I can’t find tikoy in Singapore because it’s better known as “nian gao” there. And it’s also after interviewing people for a story I’m writing about how Filipino Chinese celebrate the Chinese New Year that I will learn the real significance of tikoy – a symbol for family harmony: as it’s sticky which symbolizes that the family will “stick” together.
So now, as I’m in the mood again to eat another slice of tikoy (as I’m writing this, our nanny is cooking the red-bean flavored tikoy that I gave to my mother), I ponder on what tikoy – or the Chinese New Year for that matter – means to me.
It is about my mother who never goes home without a gift for us; it is about my dad who drives me to the office because I never learned how to drive; it is about all of us helping our mother to cope -and survive – cancer; it is about our family spending Sundays together going to church and having lunch in Binondo or Malate.
It is also about my sister, who’s now based in Europe, but never forgets to call home every Chinese New Year just to say: “Did you buy tikoy? You should buy tikoy now, that’s for good luck.”
Happy (Chinese) New Year Lil Sis!