We were supposed to choose our favourite Chinese dish for this month’s StarTwo column, and it got me thinking about my relationship with Chinese food.
My late paternal grandfather came from China. He studied in Chung Ling High School in Penang, and then returned to China fleeing some gambling debt or over some misunderstanding or another. He was the only son, so all his sisters doted on him and I think the unspoken rule was that no one was supposed to speak ill of him.
For awhile, during my teens, he wrote to me in English in the loveliest cursive handwriting. Then, he came here for a visit and never went back…and then he became ‘real’…a human old man.
But that’s a different story…that was just a roundabout way of saying that my father who went back to China with my grandfather and came back here when he was ten loves ‘t’ng sua’ (Chinese) food.
One of his favourite meals is the most watery plain porridge with boiled ikan kembung (sek kembung) and the usual condiments. In the good old days, we had weekly meals when we all ate rice from bowls and with chopsticks.
That might not be so unusual in most Chinese families, except that my mother’s dominant cultural influence is Peranakan. We all ate with our hands every meal, and there was always some gulai or sambal on the table. There was cili padi even in our steamed fish.
I wasn’t all that crazy about Sunday porridge lunches; I’d insist on rice instead of porridge, and once in awhile I did the bratty thing and have bread and butter instead. When I left home, and went to a Teowchew Porridge restaurant, I was amazed that people would pay so much for such simple home fares.
To the child that I was, Chinese food was bland and boring. It was what my neighbours’ kids had to eat (and like) – soup everyday, stir-fried vegetables, tofu and something cooked in soya sauce.
But of course, we had loads of Chinese food at home – tofu stuffed with minced meat, meat custard, fish with yellow bean paste, mixed vegetables, ABC soup. They were alright but more like second-liners or food my mom insisted was good for us when we were sick or when the weather was too hot for spicy food.
Every year at Cheng Beng and All Soul’s Day – after we have paid our respects at our great-grandparents’ graves – the extended family with great-grand aunts and all would have lunch at Ang Hoay Lor.
It’s an old restaurant that has been around since my grandfather’s time, and they serve traditional Hokkien dishes. Nothing hot or spicy there, but the food was delicious even to a fussy child.
My favourite was the bak kee mi sua – vermicelli noodles with slivers of pork fillets coated with tapioca starch. The meat is coated with tapioca flour and then dunked in hot soup, resulting in a silky smooth texture. My mom makes it too at home, and it’s one of the dishes that I have to learn from her.
The other good dish here is leek stir fried with prawns and tofu, and my mom always make this for me when I go home. It’s one of my favourite dishes. So, I guess I am more Hokkien than I care to admit.
Anyway, the restaurant is at 260 Jalan Gurdwara (Brick Kiln Road), Penang (tel: 04-2624841). It’s a typical old restaurant, so expect slow service and grumpy waiters, but the food will make up for all that.
I don’t know when I started appreciating good Chinese food, and I mean home fares and not just restaurant food. Perhaps it’s when I left home, and didn’t have my mother around to pander to what I like and what I don’t.
It’s not so hard to like good Chinese cooking after all. Tastebuds do evolve. Once I became less preoccupied with having everything hot and spicy and sour, I started developing a liking for other flavours – sweet, salty and bitter – that make up the nuances in Chinese cooking.
I began to love how interesting ingredients like yellow soya bean paste is, or how wonderfully aromatic five spice powder and how soya sauce is absolutely the best seasoning ever.
I like ingredients like garlic, ginger and spring onion, as well as the taste and textures of dried ingredients like lily’s bud, black ears and bean curd sheets. Then, there is all the herbs for soup, and the precious Chinese principles for healing through food.
I also started eating at my aunt’s (my mom’s sister), and she has been living in Kuala Lumpur for decades. She cooks all the curries I like, but she also cooks soup and Cantonese-style food. So, I learnt to appreciate the food, and also grew to like Hakka dishes like mui choi kow yoke. I have also found that I like Teowchew food which has a lot of similarities to Hokkien food.
The adult me enjoyed the adventures of exploring different tastes and cuisines. I just didn’t expect to re-discover Chinese food, and grow to like and appreciate it so much. I especially love vegetables cooked the Chinese style, and I have discovered so many vegetables I like – aubergines, bittergourd, marrow, winter melon.
The one vegetable that I was surprised to have fallen for is chives. I never wanted chives in my fried keow teow, but I love them now.
There is a dim sum shop called Sin Soon Lee in Sg Bakap, Seberang Perai (1281, Main Road – tel: 04-5823846 – closes on Wed) that dishes out the most glorious chai kuih with chives. The chives are sheathed in the silkiest of skin that falls apart at the tiniest bite, and the garlicky chives are fresh and fragrant.
Chives stir-fried with tofu is one of my favourites now, so I’m posting it because it’s one of the easiest and most rewarding dishes to make. There is really nothing you need to do with chives except to let its full-bodied flavours speak for itself. It’s like God made spring onions, and then decided to go wacky and up the ante with chives.
CHIVES STIR-FRIED WITH TOFU
1 tablespoon of cooking oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
8-10 prawns, shelled
100g chives, cut into 1 1/2 in segments
1 tofu, sliced thickly and fried
salt, to taste
Heat cooking oil, and saute the chopped garlic. Add the prawns and fry. Then, add the chives and stir-fry quickly. Add the tofu, and then season with salt.