We Teochews are a stickler of traditions, and one of the biggest events is the Coming of Age ceremony when one turns 15 years old.
Call “Going out of Garden” 出花園, it signifies the coming of age for young Teochews when they turned 15 according to the Lunar calendar (or 14 years old according to the Gregorian calendar). It is always held on the 7th day of the 7th Month, also called “Festival of the Weaver” 七夕 (or Tanabata in Japanese). These youths go through a series of rituals, just like debutantes in the Western world.
The day starts with the debutante all dressed in red, bath in 12 types of flowers, and pray to the God and Goddess of the Bed for keeping them safe all these years. The rest of the family busied with the preparation of the meal.
There’s always a chicken. For the ritual, it must be a whole chicken – head, bottom, feet – everything still intact.
What do you do with all those chicken oil? You make chicken rice of course. You fry raw rice grains in the chicken oil and then steamed the rice for that fragrant, satisfying chicken-flavoured rice you get from Hainanese chicken rice store.
Another must eat is a sweet tofu dish. The ingredients are beancurd and celery with lots of sugar. The beancurd is pan fried and then simmered in a sweet broth. Celery is added to give it the herby taste. All the ingredients are symbolic of something auspicious, just like the rest of the course in the lunch.
The whole family would usually come for this occasion whenever there’s a debutante in the family. Because of the lockdown, we are restricted to only 5 persons to visit. So only the elders came to help. And nobody eats until the debutante touches the dish. Today is their “big day” 大日子.
In everything Teochew traditional celebration, there’s always the “three creatures” 三牲 – chicken, duck and pork. Today, the pork is in the soup.
The first ritual is the biting of the chicken head 咬雞頭. The ritual signifies prosperity – 出人頭地.
And who can forget the star of Teochew banquet – the Teochew braised duck 潮州滷鴨. If this the year of Rooster or the child is born in the Year of the Rooster, then you bite the duck head instead of the chicken head.
Back to our sweet tofu with celery. The tofu is called 豆乾 and sounds like Mandarin or Officer in the Teochew dialect. So eating tofu is a wish for the child to be an officer or mandarin in the Imperial time. Of course, now it is just a wish for the child to excel in studies. The celery 芹菜 sounds like “k’ng” in Teochew, which is “to keep wealth”. The sweet sauce is for a sweet life.
The mullet is especially delicious at this time of the year, full of fish oil. This dish symbolises excess.
The pig liver is an important part of the ritual – eating pig liver symbolises the “changing of the insides” 換肝換肚 or growing up.
And then there’s the vermicelli and boiled egg
And the debutante needs to eat the egg and noodles to wish for a rounded and loin life. And finally (not pictured), the multi-coloured glutinous balls 湯圓 as dessert for a perfect conclusion.
In the past, the Coming of Age 出花園 ceremony was very important because of the hardships that many parents have to endure to raise their kids, and 15 year olds were considered ready to get married or prepare for Imperial exams.
Many things have been forgotten or replaced with the tides of time, but some traditions we strive to keep. While many of the rituals were steeped in superstitions and mysticism, the well-wishes and blessings behind those rituals are genuine. So if we keep the symbolism, it also keeps the tradition going and helps in keeping the bonds among the family members.
Here’s a very good YouTube video that explains the whole ritual in the Teochew dialect (with subtitles of course).