These two days are dedicated to Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War as well as Success. He was the most successful general of the Han dynasty and therefore, traditionally all business houses and organizations pray to Guan Yu on this day.

During these days, after two weeks of eating celebration rich foods, the Cantonese choose to cleanse their bodies with simple vegetarian food. Many of these simple foods are vegetables and fruit are offered to the Guan Yu at the altar.

Some foods for the holiday can be found here. The vegetarian ones are especially for days 13 and 14. I have chosen easy to make recipes that I like. And, ones that are not medicinal in smell and texture.

Cleansing is a part of the older Chinese mother’s culture. Cleansing is a form of respect for the body. And, it is believed to make the person stronger and more able to be successful. That is why the cleansing tradition and cooking vegetarian foods on day 13 and 14 is carried out— to respect and honor Guan Yu.

It should be noted for foreign readers that the smell of many Cantonese foods eaten on these days are foul to the nose.  Many of the traditional dishes taste medicinal. The smells are poignant and most people from outside the culture find the smells and textures difficult to eat. They are unusual to the foreign pallet.

Many of these foods, many which are brewed as soups are also a part of the older cultures healthy living habits. Even younger people from traditional Cantonese home structures with grandmothers who grew up in the villages of China, still eat these foods during the year (not just during Chinese New Year’s). I learned this first hand in the mid 1980’s when I first arrived in Hong Kong.

I had a friend, a professor from the Polytechnic University who taught in the business school. He, a lover of Chinese women, had a girlfriend who loved to come to his big kitchen and brew up her family style medicinal soups. One time, many moons ago he asked me to house while he was lecturing in China. He wanted his cat and dog to be well cared for in his absence. To my surprise, there were two of us in the house and a very foul smell generating from the kitchen. I came into the flat unknowing that this girlfriend had keys and had a habit of entering and using my friends home, unannounced! What smells came from her soup were the foulest smells I have ever been exposed to. The soup was black and full of roots and branches, and other questionable animal parts that included bones.  The soup was thick, she said vegetarian but seeing the bones raised my eyebrows and more questions. She said these soups where ones her grandparents had taught her to make during Chinese New Years and that these same soups could be made at other times of the year when she felt ill. She looked healthy to me! But, she was adamant that she remain in the house and brew these concoctions. I only could hope the smell did not filter upstairs into my bedroom, but they did invade every room on the ground floor. That week was one that I can still smell in my mind’s eye and remember as my first encounter with old Cantonese traditions and a strange type of vegetarian approach to both health and holiday. All I could think was … HOW AWFUL IT WOULD BE TO EAT THIS SOUP in CELEBRATION. To me the texture, look, and scent were something of a witch’s brew and nothing to be celebrated.

Later in my life in Hong Kong I spent time with Chinese medical doctors, herbolists and old village women. They taught me about the medicinal properties of the herbs, and what looked like bones were actually roots. I understand now more about these beliefs and traditions, about the attitude of the Cantonese towards Chinese medicine and making soups. I see it as an active important part of their history, culture. But, for me, thankfully I never have to eat these vegetarian dishes. I could not stomach any of them. But, respect the fact that others can.

Serafina was the name of the girlfriend who brewed these soups. I thank her for exposing me to this tradition and showing me the joy she had making these concoctions. I have never forgotten her or the foul smell of her soups. It’s a lasting memory (but not a nightmare!!!). And, it is a memory that reminds me in a humours way of Guan Yu going off to battle his war— Going to Serafina’s kitchen was like going to battle the God of Health. She was so adamant about cooking in her boyfriends kitchen and not leaving the house, that I found my battle with her for control was meaningless. She succeeded in both holding her ground and making her soup and teaching me to be patient and understanding of differences.

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