Welp. It’s that time of the year again, when I send off ye merry gentle kitchen gods to the sky so they can pay homage to the Sky Lord. This is not a roaming date. It is fixed in stone (or at least renewable bamboo alternative).
On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Lunar year 4720 (which is TODAY, January 14, 2023), the Kitchen God will be clambering on his golden carp and swim skyward to
tattle report on us humans to the Jade Emperor about what we’ve done all year long.
Then, when the Lunar Tết of the year 4721 arrives, exactly one week later, he returns and resumes his spot on our kitchen altar, to watch over us again for the remainder of the year.
I can’t believe how quickly 4720 has rushed by, and it will soon be lunar year 4721.(1) Yes, our lunar calendar is that old, and yes, we still use it to mark important lunar dates.
Tết. This year, comes early. I’m so used to Tết arriving between mid to end of February, and here we are, barely mid January, and I have to think about preparations for the kitchen god.
Ông Táo aka Mr. Apple the kitchen god
For those who are unfamiliar with the kitchen god, his name is Ông Táo, loosely translated as Mr. Apple. He lives in my kitchen, kinda like Calcifer the fire demon who lives in Howl’s moving castle fireplace. The difference is, Mr Apple is ancient, and Calcifer has only been around since 1986, when Diana Wynne Jones’ book Howl’s Moving Castle was first published. Literature also has a precedence. Amy Tan wrote a book in 1991 called The Kitchen God’s Wife, where she describes the mythology of the kitchen god, in that roundabout manner of writing she is so very famous for.
Here is my very own Mr. Apple, hand-carved from some sort of lightly-scented wood.
He hangs out all year long, on the top shelf in my kitchen, above all my cook books. He’s there to make sure I don’t burn the place down when I cook, and he keeps the pesky lost dust-bunny susuwatari spirits away. He also keeps track of my indiscretions so he can tattle on me to the Sky Lord the week before New Year’s Day. But who is this man any way, and why has he been designated as the family stalker?
I am in a bit of a quandary, calling Mr. Apple a ‘god’, because he isn’t one, really. He’s more like the lowly messenger for the Sky Lord, but English, being English, doesn’t really have a neutral word that is the equivalent of angel (but not that good) and demon (but not that evil).
The closest word in English that we have for this sort of entity is ‘demi-god’, but that’s not quite right either. In any case, this is what most people think Mr. Apple looks like. Grand and royal and kindhearted.
We could not be more wrong!
As it turns out, the kitchen god is not royalty or of high birth. In fact, he’s not even a single entity, but rather three souls entwined into one. The story is quite tragic, as far as folk tales go.
Long ago and far away, there lived a man and his wife. They lived during tumultuous times, when war was constantly a threat. The man was drafted, so off he went to serve the king. The woman remained at home and waited for him, but he did not return. After a very long time, she decides to remarry again.
Of course, once she remarried, her first husband returns from the war, looking for his wife. She was happy to see him, but knowing her current husband was a jealous man, told him to go hide in the shed where the family kept their firewood.
As it turns out, the new husband returns, notices that something is terribly amiss, and sets fire to the shed, burning the first husband inside to death. The woman runs into the shed looking for her first husband and also dies, most likely from smoke inhalation. Seeing her run in, the second husband also enters the shed to pull her out, but quickly succumbs to the smoke and fire and dies.
In the end, there was nothing left of the three lovers, but a legend arose, and remains to this day. Their souls merged into one entity called the Kitchen God, and thereafter, they became the purveyor of every family’s hearth and home.
Today, in the interest of expediency, I only do a single offering. The basics of the traditional offering for Mr. Apple was something that the family would eat afterwards, so it usually included three meats, a soup, and some side veggies.
After the family meal has been prepared, I would reserve a single portion of each food item for Mr. Apple and would set up the offerings table. This is what he gets, for the most part. Some years he gets more, some years, he gets less, but I always try to substitute if I don’t have the exact item on the traditional list.
- 1 small plate of rice
- 1 small plate of salt (1 Tbsp)
- 1 cup of wine: I use a tiny shot glass filled with whatever wine I have on hand.
- Boiled Pork: A few ounces is good, but if you don’t have fresh pork, use chicken.
- Boiled or roasted chicken: Some years I roast an entire chicken. This year, he gets a leg quarter.
- Sautéed vegetable plate: I have some fresh baby bok choi in the fridge for this purpose.
- Pickled onions: I don’t have any pickled onions but I do have some kim chi, so that’s what he gets.
- Sticky rice: I don’t have any sticky rice this year, so he gets a croissant roll.
- Pork sausage: Jimmy Deans sausages, all the way, baby!
- Vegetable Soup: I have some bitter melons I can make quickly into a soup, but he’s hung out at my house for decades, so he’s super Americanized. One year he got a can of minestrone soup.
- Fresh fruit: I have apples, tangerines, pomelos, mangoes, and as a nod to tradition, I bought a single dragon fruit that cost me $5 bucks!
- Tea: Not the dried stuff. Make a hot fragrant pot of whatever tea you have. I have jasmine with chrysanthemum florets.
- 1 set of banknotes, votive paper: This is what’s known as ‘hell notes’, to be burned. It’s raining super hard this year where I live, so I’m not sure how I’m going to burn this paper. I’ll have to figure out a way to do this safely without getting everything all wet.
- 1 pot of chrysanthemums: I get the yellow ones in a pot and afterwards, I try to keep them alive as long as possible or I plant it into the ground. Since these potted plants come from a florist shop and not a nursery, they usually don’t last for much more than a few weeks, even after they’ve been safely planted. One year, I managed to keep them alive for an entire year, but the flowers that bloomed were ugly and misshapen. Once frost arrived, they immediately died.
And that’s it, folks. Not much fuss and not much muss. I will take some photos of my offerings spread and update this post so you can see what exactly I do. Until then, have a wonderful day!