Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Annual repast

From The Star

Many simple yet delicious vegetarian food are offered during the ‘Kow Ong Yah’ festival.

EVERY year, on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the “Kow Ong Yah” or Nine Emperor Gods’ festival, is celebrated.

This practice, which is apparently most prevalent in South-East Asia, is particularly well observed here in Penang, where many Chinese and Buddhist temples in the state would be busy preparing for the festival. The roads leading to them would be lined with the distinctive yellow flags with red calligraphy.

This year, the auspicious day fell on Oct 19. For three, six or nine days prior to that, many devotees would have consumed only vegetarian food; in fact, some of the more devout would have started even earlier.

There are many existing vegetarian temples and restaurants which cater for them, like the canteen of the Than Hsiang Temple in Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in Bayan Lepas, where the daily number of diners can quadruple during this time.

Roads and lanes near major temples are lined with make-shift stalls which seem to have sprung up overnight, tables and chairs crammed under their zinc roofs to protect customers from the fierce day-time sun.

Some people only cook and sell vegetarian food once a year during this period, like hairdresser Lim Sai Tiang, 46, who has been offering home-cooked vegetarian food from the front of her house in Jalan Fettes for the past five years. Her Kacang Putih Curry and Vegetarian Mutton Curry with Potatoes are popular with her customers.

Every year, stalls are put up along the entire length of Madras Lane, which serve vegetarian food all day long. Crowds of diners from all walks of life throng the place, particularly at night right through till the small hours of the morning.

Special occasion: Hairdresser Lim Sai Tiang turns vegetarian cook every year for the festival; and (inset) the abbot of Kuan Im See Temple in Burmah Road helping himself to some vegetarian food.

It was here that I was lucky enough to meet the abbot of the 86-year-old Kuan Im See Temple in nearby Burmah Road. This was the first time they had taken a stall here. Willing volunteers cooked and sold food donated by the public, and all proceeds went to various charitable causes.

According to Si Fu, although vegetarianism is written down in the teachings of the Nine Emperor Gods, the origins of the practice have been lost in time.

“Individuals do it for various personal reasons. It is partly to cleanse and purify the body before prayers; others practise it to detoxify from a diet of meat. Some do it as penance or self-denial, and others, to show their gratitude to the gods,” he explained.

For some, it may just be a matter of abstaining from any meat dishes or products, but strictly speaking, even the cooking utensils and eating implements must not have come into contact with any form of meat.

Curries, chap chai (mixed vegetables) and other dishes made from bean sprouts, greens and other vegetables like cabbage, bangkwang (turnip), carrots and mushrooms, etc, were ubiquitous and plentiful, and many stalls also offered various versions of noodles. There were also many forms of meat substitutes made from flour, mee kin (gluten) and soya, some of which looked so authentic I found it difficult to believe that they weren’t – seafood, sausages, even char siew and liver.

The deep-fried lobak and roast duck looked and tasted almost like the real thing.

These creative cooks have come up with some realistic dishes for those who wish to adhere to the diet but find it arduous to give up their meat.

Much of the flavouring comes from the sometimes liberal use of salt and sugar, but amazingly, there are also vegetarian versions of oyster sauce and even belacan available!

Joanne Teh, 57, who worked in one of the stalls there, said they cooked 20 to 30 different dishes a day, and that one of their most popular was Purut Ikan, made by stall owner Ooi Ah Lean’s grandmother. They also served vegetarian Mee Jawa and Laksa.

In town, in front of the Lim Jetty along Weld Quay, 53-year-old Ooi Kim Kee has been cooking and selling economy rice to loyal customers for the past 30 years. However, she taught herself vegetarian cooking and sells just that during the nine days of the festival.

“I put away all the other utensils and bring these out, which I only use for this time of year,” she stressed. Her Kerabu is particularly popular, as it is made from her own recipe. Her clients included Sow Kiao, 44, who has been buying vegetarian food here for the past 11 years.

Sow said it was more convenient to buy her food during this time as it meant she did not have to change over all her own pots and pans.

Every year, one of the largest vegetarian sites in Penang is set up outside the Kow Ong Yah Temple in Lintang Maccallum 2, near “Gor Tiao Lor” (Fifth Street).

Not only can you find scores of stalls selling anything from noodles to yam rice, pohpiahs to pie tees, cakes, desserts and other foods, but also stages where Chinese operas are performed throughout the day and night. It’s all incredibly packed, loud and noisy, but cheerful, carnival-like and full of camaraderie.

For Yong Tau Fu seller Andy Yong, 23, this was his third year selling their version of Vegetarian Hokkien Char and Hor Fun there with his father.

“It will get much busier over the next few days,” he said. They typically start at 10 in the morning, going right through till 1 or 2am.

The event culminates in a series of processions where tens of thousands of devotees, many dressed in white, send the deities off in a boat.

Helen Ong is a self-confessed foodie who loves to hunt down the best of Penang.

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