Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Backlane Wu Ladies

The two desserts I've loved since I was a kid have to be black sesame paste and peanut paste. In Cantonese, BSP is called chee ma wu, PP is fa sung wu. A couple of skinny old ladies used to hawk them in the backlanes of Geylang. When nearby my home, they would drop by my downstairs neighbour who ran a factory-shop making egg noodles and g cheong fun (a steamed white roll often seen as a breakfast food) to gather an ingredient for a particular tonic.

You see, to make g cheong fun, you need rice. Specifically, you need rice flour and lots of it (plus wheat starch and corn starch). When you enter my neighbour's factory-shop, the first thing you'll notice on the left are the huge rice sacks stacked to the ceiling. With rice, you'll attract mice. (I call them mice because they are the clean cousins of your lonkang (drain) rats.) And they were the reason why these wizen old ladies turned up at my neighbour's establishment.

To keep fit hawking through rain and shine, these old ladies needed tonic. This was how they made it: Take a newborn mouse, wrap it in salted cabbage and swallow it whole. Follow that with a swig of brandy or Chinese wine.

I guess these ladies were the living, walking proof of what they imbibed. They carried a heavy load on those skinny shoulders (two food boxes hanging from a flat bamboo pole same as how the Samsui women carried their soil baskets.) Besides the bowls and spoons, the desserts also needed to be kept warm, so they would lug along the necessary fuel (charcoal) as well. I never found out more about these old ladies or where they lived, but their wus were very delicate and appetizing. Served in small enamel bowls with similar color trimmed metal spoons, I would often hope for seconds. It is a dessert that must be made and served just right. (The modern day instant ones are a poor imitation and needs to be prepared in a special way different from what they say on the package. I found out through experiment.)

There are still a couple of places that serve this traditional dessert right. A recent find is Sugar Granny Cafe in Chinatown near Outram MRT. Another one is at the junction of Geylang Road and Lor 11 (Gong He Guan, No. 253, a few doors from the Klang bak kut teh stall). I like both flavours so I would usually order a mix looking like some yin-yang symbol. In a way, the twin swirls remind me of the two old ladies: one selling the peanut flavour, the other selling the black sesame! I don't remember them calling out like the kok-kok mee fella, only that I just know when they are around.

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