Cover Food and drink sacrifices laid out during the Hungry Ghost Festival (Photo: iStock)

Beginning on the 15th night of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar (Sept 2 this year), Hungry Ghost Festival aka Zhongyuan Jie is a month-long festival whereby Taoist and Buddhist communities burn paper effigies and present food offerings to the spirits of their deceased ancestors  

Ask The Expert

Mark Ng co-founded Simply Enak in 2011 with the purpose of putting an entertaining spin on food education. A proficient cook who streamed Instagram cooking classes from his home during lockdown, Ng is back in action and takes pride in shining the spotlight on Penang's food trails. Curious travellers often pepper Ng with questions about Chinese altars and food offerings, making him the natural choice for our guide in this story.

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1. Ancestral Versus Orphaned Souls

First of all, did you know that food offerings differ from spirit to spirit?

Mark says: "For ancestral worship, prayers are conducted by family members of the deceased in their homes, and offerings consist of the dearly departed's favorite dishes.

As for orphaned souls, they are offered food outside the house, mainly on street curbs. These food items typically include Moho or Smiling Mantao buns, rambutans, and three types of vegetable dishes. You may also see candy used as offerings—these are mainly for children who have passed away. In normal cases, meat is not offered to orphaned souls."

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2. 'Meating' A Commitment

According to Ng, orphaned souls have the memory of an elephant, and may hold a grudge over inconsistent food offerings.

"If you are to serve meat in your offerings, be it chicken, pork or duck, from that year onwards, you must continue to offer meat items," warns Ng. "Entrepreneurs who are running their own businesses usually serve meat-based offerings to ensure that their businesses run without obstacles."

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3. Sub-Ethnic Chinese Cuisine

As mentioned prior, food offerings are often tailored to your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents' palates.

"Which is why dishes differ from one state to another and depending on whether you are Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka or Teow Chew," says Mark. "In Penang, for example, you might have Nyonya dishes such as Ju Hu Char (fried jicama), Curry Kapitan (Captain's Curry) and Tau Yew Bak (braised pork belly in soya sauce). In Kuala Lumpur, dishes will skew Cantonese. But if your ancestors adhered to a vegetarian diet, no meat is allowed as an offering."

Those who pay close attention to prayer altars may notice that dishes are accompanied by three bowls of rice, three sets of chopsticks and three cups of Chinese tea or rice wine. "They represent the three realms—heaven, earth and the underworld," explains Ng.
Speaking of food symbolism, these are some popular food items associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival:

4. Good Health & Longevity

Noodles: Long strands of noodles represent a well-lived life.
Tortoise Mi Ku: Similarly, the tortoise stands for longevity, as the hardy reptile can live for more than a century. Mi Ku buns are dyed red for doubly good fortune.

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5. Prosperity & Wealth

Pineapple: This prickly fruit is called ong lai in Hokkien, which can also mean "to invite luck". To eat or to serve pineapples is to bring luck to you and your loved ones.
San Choy: Also known as Chinese lettuce, san choy is a homonym for "to grow luck" in Cantonese, and the leafy vegetable is therefore used to symbolise prosperity.

Huat Kuih: A key ingredient in Huat Kuih is the fermented palm wine. Because this traditional kuih doubles in size after being steamed, it stands for prosperity. The Hokkien word huat also means "to prosper".

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