It’s Ghost Month all over again. The gates between Hell and the Land of the Living remain open during this period, allowing ghosts and spirits to explore our realm. To be safe and prosperous, Chinese traditions include a long list of dos and don’ts that include several dietary habits. These customs help Chinese families appease ghosts and spirits and keep them from causing harm or doing mischief. Prayers and meditation are encouraged, ancestors and house gods are honored and invoked, and temporary altars are set up with offerings complete with joss sticks and incense. In all these, food plays a big role.
1. Set up an altar with offerings
This can be done either before or after the family supper. The offerings are not for your ancestor spirits, but rather for “orphan” ghosts who may be wandering around looking for food or amusement. Set up a makeshift altar a short distance outside your home. Place joss sticks, incense, and traditional food offerings such as uncooked rice, peanuts, sweets, raw noodles, fruit, rice wine, beer, bags of salt, and even sugar in the center. It is totally acceptable to eat these items.
2. Be consistent
Orphaned spirits have long memories and may carry a grudge if your food offerings are inconsistent year after year. So, if you’ve been serving chicken, fish, or any other type of meat, it’s a good idea to keep doing so in the future.
3. Try out family recipes
This is a time to bring out your family recipes and is a wonderful way to touch base with your family roots and culture. For this reason, many ethnic Chinese specialty dishes are served at the family table during this time, which is a great way to honor the past.
4. Eat symbolic foods
Symbolic foods are provided, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Noodles, for example, represent longevity and well-lived life. Pineapples are supposed to bring good fortune. Chinese lettuce represents wealth. Fermented palm wine (huat kuth) is also thought to bring good fortune.
5. Observe Hungry Ghost Festival
The Hungry Ghost Festival is the culmination of Ghost Month. First, hold a family dinner to honor your ancestors and household gods. Invite your relatives and serve traditional dishes. You might want to serve vegetarian meals in honor of the holiday’s Buddhist roots. Set some extra places at the table for your ancestors, and make sure to serve some of their favorite dishes as well. After a few prayers, enjoy the feast and make merry. Happy sounds keep bad spirits away.
Ghost Month strengthens our sense of family and teaches us to be kind and compassionate, making an effort to feed the needy, ghosts and people alike. Take advantage of the opportunity to generate positive karma as you eat, drink, and have fun.