Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Feast of Ghost Stories


IT’S NOT A MALAYSIAN TRADITION to tell ghost stories at Christmas, but it used to be quite the done thing in Britain to gather around the fireplace at Christmas and swap spooky tales.

I suspect that the practice was greatly encouraged by the cold weather at that time of the year in Britain—ideal for huddling in front of a blazing fire. Christmas is also when the family gets together, so there’s a crowd listening together, and maybe even more than one storyteller. Of course, now that there’s television, and DVDs and such, no one wants to hear grandma tell how she met the devil in the churchyard one freezing winter’s night.

Christmas time also coincides with the Celtic midwinter (or winter solstice), supposedly the second most haunted time of the year (the first, for the Celts, is Samhain, celebrated at the end of October to mark the transition from “lighter” summer to “darker” autumn), and that must be another reason why ghost stories are told during the season.

For the Chinese, the most haunted time of the year is during the month of the hungry ghosts. This is when the spirits of those who died hungry, prematurely or unjustly are allowed back into the world of the living. They come seeking revenge and are mollified with offerings of food.

In the small town in Malaysia where I grew up, the hungry ghost festival was marked with displays of food in the marketplace. I loved the spectacle of rows and rows of tables heavily laden with delicious edibles. Most eye-catching were the whole pigs, several in their pink skins, several more roasted a crisp golden brown, all with apples or peaches in their mouths.

A Banquet of Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Henry Holt, 180pp) is inspired by this Chinese tradition, as well as the central place food and meal times have in the lives of the living Chinese (when we meet, we usually say “Have you eaten yet?”).

The eight stories are divided under three headings one would normally see in menus: Appetizers, Main Courses and Desserts. Accordingly, each story is named after a Chinese dish and the dish is always an integral part of the story.

For example, in “Steamed Dumplings,” a restaurant owner uses human flesh for his popular dumplings; in “Beef Stew,” this dish is served to a condemned prisoner as his final meal; and in “Eight-Treasure Rice Pudding,” the fragrant dessert is the instrument of revenge that the ghost of a father uses on the son who murdered him.

The stories are more gory than spooky as they feature many violent deaths and the ghosts aren’t subtle enough to make you shiver and glance over your shoulder. A Banquet of Hungry Ghosts works better as a book about food—Compestine describes all edibles in loving and mouth-watering detail.

Then again, readers may find that blood and gore don’t make very good appetizers. If this is the case, skip the stories and go straight to the recipes (there is one at the end of each tale). Telling ghost stories may not be part and parcel of Malaysian Christmases, but feasting most certainly is!

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of December 13, 2009


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