Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Different Sky Same Wok

I have a remarkable book that I bought from a few years ago. It's called My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen - 100 Family Recipes and Life Lessons. Actually, I've stopped buying books a long time ago, preferring to instead borrow from the library. I'd run out of space and the books always turned  yellow with age making them rather unpleasant to read. But one yellowed book I don't mind reading over and over again is Dream Science, written by Thomas Palmer.

Palmer did not write many books (two, I think), but Dream Science was truly exceptional. If there was a book I wanted to write, this would be it. And if there is one sci-fi book to recommend you, a non-fiction reader, this would be the title. I know you won't regret it.

In any case, why did I buy a book from Amazon then? Well, surprisingly, many of the recipes inside MGCK mirrored food my mother cooked when I was a kid.

The author, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, is Cantonese, and both she and her grandma came from the village of Siu Lo Chun, a small enclave in Sun Tak District in Guangdong Province - where my grandfather hailed from (his village was Panyu, one of the oldest cities in China). I was curious as to how the recipes of my mom's and Eileen's grandma's were so similar. Did they come from the same village or thereabouts? Did all Cantonese cook the same at home?

One can dismiss this as nonsense. After all, my mom and her grandma are both Cantonese and should originate from the same province in motherland China. Still, in our modern times, we cook the same only if we went to the same culinary school, watched the same cooking shows, or grew up in the same family. So, how did these recipes get passed around from eons and distances apart?

Staple Cantonese dishes
When I was a kid growing up in Geylang, our meals consisted of a few staple dishes. We were a brood of seven so my mom had to cook in a fashion. A common dish was tung choy zeng g yoke or Steamed Minced Meat with tung choy (a brown preserved veg). Our TCZGY was usually cooked and served on a medium-sized yellow enamel plate - common cookware in those days. TCZGY is easy to prepare, so we had it often. In fact, we had it so often that I can recall still the circular metal stand that was used in the steaming wok. It's still fresh in my mind because I would help my mom transfer that hot steaming dish to the dining table with a  three-legged retractable clamp. To a kid that was fun to use and unnerving at the same time. But the three-legged clamp was kind of rickety and I often worried of dropping the evening's meal dish on the floor. TCZGY is a salty dish. It works very well with plain porridge, good when one is sick and low on appetite.

Another steamed dish was zeng gai tan or Steamed Egg. This dish was often done with minced meat, salted eggs and century eggs mixed together. Fish cake was also sometimes added to give texture. My mom's ZGT was always smooth and silky - with a layer of gleaming oil and soy sauce swimming on top.

Si yau gai or Soy Sauce Chicken was another staple dish. Today, you can find SYG at most zhichar stalls in the kopitiams. I once managed to cook it myself, the same way my mom did. The amount of oil, soy sauce and ginger has to be just right. My mom was quite experimental in her cooking and modified this recipe over the years. She would add sliced black bean curd, muk yee (wood-ear mushroom), button mushrooms, etc., - almost anything that can and could be mun (stewed) was game.

Stewing was common in my mom's kitchen. It made sense: A stewed pot of stuff can serve a large family for days on end.

If you replace the chicken in SYG with pork and add star anise and cinnamon, you'll get mun gee yoke or Stewed Pork. Together with chestnuts and tau pok, this dish can be eaten with rice or porridge. We sometimes ate it with g cheong fun scraps, courtesy of a neighbour who manufactured g cheong fun in her shop downstairs. Broken g cheong fun was of no use to them and so we ate it in similar fashion to kway chap.

A dish quite similar to SYG was bak jau gai or Chicken in White Wine (rice wine, actually). For some reason, muk yee works really well in this dish. I doubt you can find anything more appetising than this rice wine dish, perhaps second only to Red Glutinous Wine Chicken  or hung lor mai chau gai. Well, if you can tolerate alcohol that is. My mom wasn't too worried that we kids were underaged or not. Her philosophy has always been: "A little of everything won't kill you!"

In terms of vegetables, I remember eating a lot of choy sum - either stir-fried or in soup. As soup, it was often accompanied by fishballs made from sai toh yu or Wolf Herring (ikan parang). We also liked her harm yu nga choy tau foo or Salted Fish with Bean Sprouts and Bean Curd. The salted fish would be bought from Chinatown. We had kai lan in oyster sauce as well but it was a veg we kids found bitter in parts. And tough too if a tad old.

Soup culture
People often equate drinking lots of soup with the Cantonese. Well, it's true. In my days of growing up in Geylang, we had lots of soup - often brewed in a large green enamel pot that was white inside. They still sell such pots in Ang Mo Kio Central. We often made red bean soup in that pot too, the red contrasting with the white. My mom learned from her neighbour to flavour it with dried kum peh or tangerine peel.

We almost always had soup with rice and dishes. The thinking at the time was that food with soup went down better. Also, soup can have healing properties if cooked right. Speaking of cures, we kept a claypot and charcoal stove especially for cooking Chinese medicine. After it proved too smoky and messy, we switched to gas.

For general health, we often had lin ngau tong or Lotus Root Soup. The lin ngau was cooked with pork or pork rib and black beans. Some times peanuts were used in lieu of black beans. At times, both. Eating the lin ngau was quite fun for a kid. You bite into one and out comes this spidery web. The holes in the root was interesting too. I think one reason why my mom cooked this soup is that it went well with rice. It's a complete meal by itself so it made feeding seven children that much easier. Also, lin ngau was supposed to be beneficial to the body. (Note: The root is actually rich in iron and other nutrients, a Top 9 food to have according to TCM practitioners since ancient times.)

Another oft-drank soup was sai yong choy tong or Chinese Watercress Vegetable Soup. It's a signature dish of my mom's. I liked its taste and the fibrous nature of the veg. Most times, my mom would boil this soup together with pork ribs, red dates, gei chi (wolf berries) and gung yu jai (small anchovies). Unlike the same soup sold at food stalls today, my mom's SYCT wasn't oily at all. Boy, I could never get enough of the watercress! (I think I had mistaken it as the veg that Popeye ate. His cartoon was regular on TV then.)

We had other soups like lo wong kua tong or Old Cucumber Soup and jit kua tong or Winter Melon Soup. JKT with salted egg has a distinctive flavour and is very refreshing. It is a great cooling soup to have after a day in the sun.

If we got sick, my mom would make gee gon tong or Pig Liver Soup. This gingerly broth feels wholesome and life affirming. Quite appropriate as a convalescent soup. The soup can taste harsh due to the liver but you ca smooth it out by adding a little rice wine to it.

Perhaps my all-time favourite soup as a kid has to be she jai tong or Potato Soup. Unlike the Western version, this semi-clear broth is made with diced potatoes and carrots, sliced onions and minced meat. It is an easy dish to prepare and very nourishing - very suitable for busy, working people to make. I've made it myself a few times. All you have to do is slow-cook it overnight. You can also make it more flavourful by adding in herb roots and vegetables such as Chinese celery. Just get the proportions right, else the taste would go off kilter! Instead of minced meat, try replacing it with a few chicken wings. It'll make the soup more fragrant. And fry the wings a little first. This will ensure that they keep their shape boiling in the soup (add them in the last 20mins or so).

As kids, we didn't take to strong smelling vegetables like fu gua or Bittergourd very much. My mom had a dish called tau si mun fu gua or Bittergourd Stewed in Bean Paste, which I like very much now but not as a kid. At the time, my mom would complain that we sek fun sek tho oy sei kum yong (literally "eat dinner until like wanna die") whenever we were served fu gua. To entice us, she would claim that fu gua is good for our skin and pimples. Still, we ate it sparingly. Later, as we got older a bit, we would joke that life is tough, why we were still eating fu gua. ("Maeng fu sek fu gua" - Was this a line from Man in The Net?)

There would also be fu gua tong or Bittergourd Soup, often cooked with a dropped salted egg. This is actually quite similar to the jit kua tong mentioned earlier. This JKT soup is very commonly found on Western Chinese restaurant menus. It's one of those heritage soups that the angmohs first got acquainted with dining out Chinese.

Another vegetable that didn't find much favour with us kids was brinjal. Its "lum pat pat" (mushy) texture turned us off. I only liked it as an adult and now like it cooked in sambal belachan. I would often have it together with fried white beehoon as breakfast food. A zhichar stall near my home does both very well. It is a pity that they got replaced recently by another stall. The new zhichar doesn't cook the white beehoon as  wet, soft and less oily than the previous fellas.

No fried foods
As kids, we seldom ate fried food, not even chicken wings. Our chickens were often cooked "bak cham", that is, broiled. For my birthday, my mom would always buy me a bak cham gai geok (broiled chicken drumstick) without fail. If there was any fried food, it would be banana fitters. The stall we bought them from would also sell muk she go or tapioca fritter, including my other favourite, the luk tau or green bean fritter.

Mom's signature dishes
My mom had a few more signature dishes. One of my favourites was kum dau mun g yoke or Baked Beans Stewed w Minced Meat. It's a very simple dish that takes only minutes to prepare. To make it even more filling, my mom would add potato and luncheon meat cubes to it. It's what I call a "fai chan" or fast food dish. For some reason, I can eat baked beans anytime. I am not sure why, perhaps I was a Mexican in a previous life!

Another baked bean dish my mom cooked went well with pork chop. This pork chop is first breaded and  then fried to an orange color. Baked beans, peas and onions are then dished on as condiment, all steeped in a sweet, tangy tomato sauce. I think my mother first fried her pork chop with a prepared mix, why the strong orange color. It left a deep impression in my memory. I used to find this pork chop dish (all sliced up) at zhichar stalls in the 90s but not any more. But you can still eat a version of it at Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant, the one along Upper Thomson Road that is just a few doors away from Fat Boys Burger.

(Later I would learn that my mum also liked to tapow this pork chop dish from a neighbouring zhichar stall in Lor 17. See here for story.)

Wok with beans
Speaking of beans, my mom enjoyed cooking with long beans and French beans. Both would be done with har mai (dried shrimps), onions and anchovies. Sliced fishball and fishcake (yu yun and yu paeng) would sometimes be added too. I think when you have kids, fishball and fishcake are two great ingredients to have in the fridge. They make vegetable dishes more appetitising to children. As kids, however, we never had any problems with vegetables, unlike our Western counterparts if TV sitcoms and talk shows are to be believed. We were expected to eat a variety of stuff. If you didn't, you were either weird or being difficult. You could get caned too.

My mom also made yong tau foo herself, sometimes cooked in soup or fried as a dish. I remember helping her descale  fish and scoop the flesh off with a spoon. The fish meat would be used for filling up the tau foo, tau pok or fu gua.

Fave rice dish
Another specialty dish of my mom's was harm fan or Soy Sauce Rice. This, like fried rice, is another single dish that can easily feed a big family - all cooked in a rice cooker. The ingredients are few, such as soy sauce, ginger, har mai, Chinese sausages and fishcake cubes. Sometimes chicken is added. If I knew my mom was cooking ham fan on a particular day, I would make it a point to get home early from school. It is a bit strange, but I find ham fan to be like fishhead curry rice. You can eat and eat without stopping - why some folks end up with indigestion. I literally have to limit myself to avoid that, even now as an adult. And ham fan with pepper makes it even more scrumptious!

You can consider my mom a good cook. She was a full-time housewife and so had time to experiment. She also exchanged recipes with her neighbours.

One of the more exotic soups that she came up with was baht chau yu tong or Octopus Soup, often times cooked with pork. She even cooked rabbit soup once but didn't tell us what it was so as not to upset us. We owned a pet rabbit then. I sometimes wondered if that rabbit in the pot was a recently deceased one that belonged to us. For every time we tried to buy a companion for our pet rabbit Bumble, these other rabbits would invariably die, and often die of diarrhea. The whole thing was kind of weird. And not that Bumble was an unfriendly creature. After a few tragic (and smelly) results, we simply gave up.

CNY heralding dishes
Like many mothers in Singapore, come Chinese New Year, my mom would ratchet up her cooking skills. She would then cook dishes with auspicious names that has a lot to do with Wealth, Long Life, and Happiness. Things like: fatt choy mun tung ku, tan bak gei zi cheng har, g pei mun fut sao, hor see mun fu chok tung fun, etc, etc.  I won't translate as it would take too long.

During this festive season, my mom would make kok jai or Peanut Puffs. Kok jai looks like miniature curry puffs but are filled with sugar and peanut instead. We kids loved to help our mom make this pastry. The process is quite similar to making curry puffs. We would first measure and cut the dough patties. (We did this simply with  the aid of a large F&N drink bottle. We would use its bottom as both measure and cutter.) Then, we would put the filling in and wrap it into a puff. Next, we turned the edges into curly folds. As kids, we had smaller fingers, so it was easier for us to do this than the adults.

Traditional no more
Like most people, we too lamented when our mom stopped making such traditional delicacies for CNY. I am not sure when that happened and I sure miss those times playing with the dough on our round marble-top dining table. I am not being bias but her kok jai tasted so much better than any sold today. These days, they are nice to look at but ghastly in taste.

At the tail-end of Chinese New Year, my mom would slice up any left over sticky nin go or New Year Cake and fry them in batter. She still does this every CNY.

My mom has never been shy of innovating in the kitchen, partly out of necessity and having so many mouths to feed. Because she visits often with Chinese doctors and medicine shops, she learnt to combine food taste with medicinal cure. She doesn't cook Western but hankers for a good steak now and then. As a matter of fact, as she got older, she liked to sample different types of food. A recent trip was to Prince Coffee House in Beach Road for their signature Ox Tail Stew. It turned out better in memory than actual taste. The gravy was simply too potatoey and spiced enough.

Food that binds
I am well aware that my mom will leave this green Earth some day. So, it is good to learn some of her recipes while she is still alive and her mind not ravaged by some disorder. Such knowledge is what binds a people. For me, I feel lucky to have found that book by Eileen Lo. She showed me that my food heritage went further back than just my mom's kitchen. Back to a time and place where my parents' parents were kids themselves once looking forward to the same dishes as I did myself in Geylang. Now, isn't that a remarkable thing?

Note: Another remarkable cookbook is The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young. It has more of a medicinal bend. It's a worthwhile addition to any Cantonese cookbook collection.

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