3. Recipes with memories
Nearly 30 years had passed since I left China, but I still remember vividly the wonderful days around the Chinese New Years. Extended families gathered at the large dinner tables, briefly forgot about their quarrels throughout the year. The wok chinked with an aroma of delicacies that we couldn’t afford as daily meals. The rolling pins were out for the wickedly delicious sweet peanut pastry.
The flower festival (‘huaJie’, 花街) was held about a week before the Chinese New Year. Families went to the street market packed of flower vendors to select their festival decorations. Kumquat 金橘 was an essential – ‘kum’ means gold and ‘quat’ has a similar pronunciation as fortune. It is a plant that will bring good prosperity in the new year. A small blossoming peach shrub was also an essential, s symbol of strength and vitality, with beautiful flowers emerged from the harshness of the winter. Also common were the chrysanthemum 菊花 and peony 牡丹, large and colorful, symbols of riches and honor.
When I was a little girl, my father worked in another city. So my second uncle took me to the flower festival each year. Our most memorable trips were the ones on the New Years Eves. We had loads of fun browsing the market and pushed through the crowd. There were so many people at the market, my uncle had to put me on his shoulders to be safe. When it was close to the midnight, we rushed home to light our fire crackers. There was one time that we were late and ran into the fire cracker storms at mid-night. The crackers and the odd firework were loud and smoky, with laughter of the children, so much joy and happiness.
The next morning the streets were quiet with a red carpet of paper left behind by the fire crackers. Kids got up early to collect the odd fire crackers that did not go off the previous night, then ran around greeting their relatives ‘goon he fa choi’ 恭喜發財, in exchange for red envelopes with a little money, which they would use to buy lollies for months to come.
After the big feast on the New Year’s Eve, vegetarian meals were common on the first day of the new year. My favorite dish was the stew Chinese mushrooms, a delicacy rarely consumed during the year. The mushrooms were cooked with different types of dry or fresh vegetables – lily buds, fungus, dry tofu sticks, hair vegetable 髮菜 and bamboo shoots. The aroma of the dish is still lingering in my mind.
Nowadays I cook Chinese mushrooms quite often – nearly everybody in our family and extended families love it. In Sydney the Chinese mushrooms are inexpensive, a 250g bag of good quality mushrooms cost around $12. It makes a huge dish for 8-10 people to share. We are thankful for what we are able to enjoy today.
Here is a simple mushroom dish I’d like to share with you.
Steamed pork with soy sauce, memories of my aunt Yi-ma(姨妈), and how my mother met my father (low FODMAP, gluten free)
During the week, we try to make simple meals. A meal cooked over rice in a rice cooker is ideal for a late autumn evening – warm, comforting and super easy. We enjoy a few glasses of wine while the rice cooker is hard at work.
I cooked some steamed pork in the rice cooker tonight. The dish reminded me my aunt Yi-ma (姨妈) who cooked an excellent steamed pork dish. My mother met my father during a match making visit between for Yi-ma and my father. Yi-ma means an aunt from the mother side.
My mother’s childhood
My mother was an orphan. Her mother was a maid who married her aged master.
In early 1900s, my grandfather was a laborer who went to Malaysia to work on a rubber farm. It was very common those days along the south coast of China. When he returned to China, he bought some farm land and a few houses. He then took a concubine, the maid. His first wife gave him only a daughter and no sons.
The first wife’s daughter migrated to America with her husband. Before my grandfather had his own son, he adopted a relative’s child whose name was Han.
During the Sino-Japanese war the family ran out of money. Grandfather and his wives died under some unspoken circumstance. My mother refused to talk about it. Some relatives said they suffered a great deal of financial hardship as they were not able to collect rents from the land and houses during this period.
During the 1940s, my mother grew up with his brother, living on some cash sent home by the sister in America. The two young children cooked for themselves and cared for each other.
The adopted son, Han, was 20 years older than the children. During the war he was a soldier in the National army. When he returned from the war, he took over all the cash sent from America and rents. The two young orphans was left with no food or resources. Every day the siblings walked down to the Han’s house to collect some rice and whatever he would give them. Their regular meal was a thin rice porridge (congee). They were always hungry. As a grown up, my mother refused to talk about this man. Every time his name was mentioned, mother was anxious, sad and angry.
Moving to the city
In mid-1950, my mother was about 12 years old. My aunt Yi-ma’s family needed domestic helps and took my mother into their home. They were remote relatives from my mother’s side. Mother was grateful to them despite that she didn’t enjoy the chores, like getting up 5am in the morning to cook breakfast.
A few years later, she was accepted by a selective high school and could not come up with the few dollars for school fee each year. Mother was devastated when the family told her that they didn’t have the resources to support her education.
A young and beautiful maiden full of dreams
Young and attractive looking, my mother applied for an actress position which she was rejected because she was not sufficiently tall. Utterly disappointing, she found a job as a childcare worker which she thoroughly enjoyed. Her role was shortly made redundant and the position was offered to a relative of an official.
Mother became a factory hand in a wireless factory. She made many new friends. In later years, I observed her interaction with her friends, I could not help wondering if some of her male friends were once her admirers.
With the ambition to migrate to the U.S. to join her elder sister, my mother refused to have a relationship. When she was 28 years old, her sister passed away. Mother’s dream was shuttered again.
How my mother met my father
In the late 1960s, a young and bright engineer and his family were living two blocks away from Yi-ma’s apartment.
My grandmother was a friend of Yi-mas mother. They organised a match making 相亲 to introduce my aunt to my father. The introduction (相亲) did not go well – the young man stepped inside the apartment, and decided he wanted the other good looking maiden instead. Mother was visiting Yi-ma that day.
That’s how my mother met my father.
The young couple dated briefly, and happily married. They had many photos of happy times, sitting in the park with sweet smiles, and holding each others’ arms.
The happy time ended when I was born. My father was sent away to the countryside to work for another factory. He visited us for 10 days each year at Chinese new year, and occasionally dropped in for a few days while he passed through for work. My mother’s dream of marrying an educated man and living a comfortable life was shuttered. My father was not entitled to any accommodation in the city. We all cramped into a terrace house with my grandparents, uncles and aunt and their families.
When my father returned to the city, it was 13 years later.
Yi-ma married a nice man with a gentle soul. He was a senior official in the foreign trade inspection office. We called him ‘Yi-zhang’ (姨丈), meaning an uncle from the mother side. In his official position, Yi-zhang received gifts all the time – fruits, cookies to expensive Chinese liquor in fancy bottles. Yi-zhang didn’t drink. So it didn’t bother him that some liquor turned moldy in unopened bottles – they were fake and most likely filled with tea.
Beside free gifts, they were quietly well off. Yi-ma’s brother died during the Korean War. All the family assets went to Yi-ma, including a sizable portfolio of real estate and stocks in Hong Kong.
Knowing our limited financial resources, Yi-ma was always generous to us. Every year at the Chinese New Year she always gifted me a handsome amount in a red envelope. She gave me my first $1 note. In early 1970s, $1 was a fortune to a little girl. Unlucky for me, my mother confiscated the money, saying that she would have to provide red envelopes to other children so she must recycle the cash.
Yi-ma and Yi-zhang were the first family we knew to own a color TV and a fridge. They often invited us over for meals, cold jelly, special goodies or simply when they cut open a watermelon. Their most tasty dish was the steamed pork, cooked in a little metal dish on top of the rice, juicy, sweet, salty and delicious.
My steamed pork
I cooked some steamed pork tonight, just like how Yi-ma used to cook it.
Recipe is as follows:
I cooked some cracklings tonight, the way my grandmother cooked them a long long time ago.
When I was growing up, pork fat was a rare delicacy. Meat was rationed. It was difficult to imagine that one would waste the precious coupons on pork fat instead of good cut of meat.
My grandmother was an extraordinary woman, always working, never complaint and never indulged herself, except, she loved pork fat. Occasionally she took me to the food market across the street and bought a small slap of pork fat with skin. She cut up the meat, then pan fried the pieces in a wok over the coal stove.
The pan frying turned very quickly to deep frying. She scooped out the oil and stored it in a little black urn. The black urn sat on a rotten timber shelf, up high and away from the cats, looking like a treasure pot. In the wok, the pork pieces eventually turned into golden delicious cracklings which we shared with the whole extended family of about 10 people.
Over the next few days, grandmother and I enjoyed hot boiled rice with pork fat for lunches, flavored with a dash of soy sauce. My grandmother called it ‘lou fan’ meaning ‘mix the rice’. These were some of the most delicious meals I ever had.
I still remember our kitchen. The walls were never painted, darken by the smoke from the coal cakes. The small earthy stove was among piles of coal cakes, which we purchased from a small shop at the end of our lane way. From very young age, I helped to carry the coal cakes home, a few at a time, on top of a small timber slab. Our house cats slept on top of the coal cakes during winters for the warmth from the stove, waking up in the morning, looking filthy. The cats were working cats and expected to fetch most of their own food (rats). They ate scraps from the family meals, most of the time it was just some rice, vegetables and sauce. Unloved and hungry, they had anxious looks in the eyes that I could never forget. They had a hard life.
Today, we have shiny appliances in our kitchen and beautiful stone splash back. We have a beautiful dog in our household which we dearly love. He enjoys his home cooked meals with all the goodness.
As I enjoyed the meal, I really appreciate what we have today.
Recipe is as follows:
I made some tea buns today. When I was a little kid these buns were sold in little shops on nearly every street in GuangZhou. We had them mostly for breakfast. The bread was also great for a picnic lunch during school excursions.
Growing up, I didn’t have many close friends in the neighborhood, until I met OuYang in year 3 of primary school.
I grew up in a terrace house on a small lane way. There were always other kids around. During my early childhood years, I often wandered around and watched other kids played. I rarely joined in as most kids were older than me. At pre-school I didn’t quite connect with other kids. I was the odd one who always cried at the front door when my nails were examined for cleanness; the one who went for the old books rather than new toys; and the one that was the fastest on tricycle but never won any competitions.
In primary school, I was one of top students academically. I was ‘appointed’ as the literacy subject ‘leader’ for the class that year. The role of a ‘leader’ was to collect homework, and led the morning reading sessions at the front of the classroom, a proud job for a young girl.
One day, the teacher pulled me aside. She reassigned my literacy ‘leader’ responsibility to a new kid transferred from another school. The teacher said she was excellent in literacy, won awards for her essays, hence deserved to be the literacy ‘leader’. I was told to take on the role for English instead. I didn’t mind, I was good at both subjects. I was looking forward to meet this new kid.
Then I met OuYang, a bright girl with pony tails like ox horns (common those days). We got on straight away and we became best friends. OuYang was open, warm and highly competitive. Our next 3 years were amazing as we shared our love for literacy and appreciation for nature. At break time between classes, we leaned on the railing of the long balcony, chatted about anything and everything. When I spent time at her house, her mum was kind and gentle. It was the first time that I realized that mothers had different parenting style.
For a school excursion we went to the tallest mountains in the city, called the ‘Baiyun Mountain’ (白雲山) or the ‘White Cloud Mountain’. We found some common wild flowers with yellow blossoms. We sat down on the green grass and had our picnic lunch next to the flowers. We named the flowers ‘yellow sun’ and wrote a poem about it. I still remember my lunch that day were 2 tea buns which I bought from the little convenience store near my house.
As I enjoyed the warm and delicious tea buns I made today, I wished I could reconnect with my long lost friend OuYang again.
A few evenings ago, I watched Behind the News with my 9 year old boy on ABC iview. Behind the News is a TV news program made for the kids. That evening, the program covered the famine situation in Sudan. “Had China ever have famine?”my little boy asked. These few innocent words had brought back my memories of a peasant family begging at a cheap noodle restaurant. I could still see their shadows, even today.
In early 70’s, my grandmother cooked communal dinners for the extended families. Each family contributed to the cost of the food. Money and resources were limited at the time. We nearly never went out for dinners, as my mother didn’t want to pay for meals twice. One night, for whatever reasons we were at this cheap noodle restaurant. It was a common and shabby place. The kitchen inside was steamy with a large pot of hot water for cooking the noodles, a large pot of cold water to cool and rinse the noodles, and a large pot of soup with nothing in it and barely any color. We found a table outside with wobbly chairs and started to eat our noodle soups. For a few cents, the meal had no meat or vegetables, just plain noodles and a little green shallot floating on top. It was hot and a rare treat for a little 5-year old girl.
Suddenly, 3 children in ragged clothes surrounded our table. They looked different to our city people. They had dark and coarse skin, as they were farmers from the countryside. They were dirty and messy, as they were far away from home and living on streets. They spoke in dialect that I never heard before. They would have traveled from afar, probably from another province where their crops failed. And their eyes, they had such hungry eyes. The littlest one just devoured some leftover soup from the next table, and redirected his attention to my bowl.
I looked up to my mother. ‘Eat up all your food’, she said sternly. When I left some food in the bowl at the end of the meal, she picked up the bowl and swallowed everything in it, including last drops of the soup, the soup of nothingness. The children moved away to another table, motionless.
Many years past, my memories of that family did not fake. Most of all, I was puzzled why my mother was so indifferent to the begging children. After all, she was an orphan herself. She would have understood the pain and suffering of that family, hungry, homeless and desperate?
This weekend, I made a large batch of noodles from scratch. I served the noodles in a beautiful chicken soup, topped with mouthwatering crispy bacon bits. Life has been kind to our family and we really appreciate what we have.
Like to have a go at making your own noodles? Recipe is as follows.
Recently, I reconnected with my high school mates on WeChat via a group chat. The high school, named the GuangDong Guangya Middle School, was one of the most prestige selective schools in the GuangZhou city. We all grew up to be proud and competitive individuals. Then we went on our separate paths to distinctively different lives. I selected a simple but busy life in Sydney – a job in the finance industry, a small family, a house with picket fences, a lovely garden, and a double garage full of beautiful crockery and cooking equipment – I love my cooking.
Bo, a school mate from Singapore had been posting his dinners every night in the group chat. He often has 5 dishes for his family of 4. The dishes are home style, plain and simple. A typical meal consists of a gorgeous seafood dish, an overcooked meat dish and 3 seasonal vegetable dishes bursting with freshness. Sometimes we could tell how many were dining at home by counting the jumbo prawns. I was puzzled by Bo’s persistence and efforts posting his 6 meals a week, and occasionally meals from the restaurants when they ate out on Sundays. And a few days ago, he posted this story…
‘I live a simple and unexciting life, often with repetitive routines. There were seldom any exceptional events. However, the memory of this single incident at GuangYa Middle School I will always treasure.
It was a very hot afternoon. We were attending a physical exercise class in front of the physic building. That day we had a basketball game. I was pushed over by a big fellow student. I fell and my left hand landed on the ground first. I could see my wrist was twisted, followed by sharp pains. I realized I had broken my wrist.
I was surrounded by teachers and students. The PE teacher asked who would accompany me to the local hospital which was within walking distance from the school. Hong pushed through the crowd and took my arm. Hong was a quiet student, often with a few words and rarely smiled. I hardly spoke with him in the past. I was pleasantly surprised by him volunteering to help.
One thing was overlooked by the PE teacher – he didn’t ask if we had any money for the hospital. Those days most families were not well off and kids didn’t get much pocket money. I didn’t have any money on me that day. Luckily Hung had some money and he managed to pay for the treatment. There was no x-ray machine at the local hospital. The wrist was bandaged and that was that.
The next day after the math class, our math teacher, Feng, came over to my desk with a bowl of soup and a gentle smile . Feng was one of the strictest teachers and rarely showed her emotions. ‘This is a seaweed and egg soup’, she said, ‘you have it now while it is warm. It helps with your calcium intake and good for your bones.’
I was speechless. Even my mum never cooked me a soup before (she didn’t really learn how to cook until she was retired). I looked at Feng, who had returned to the teacher’s podium, I felt warmth all over.
Despite her tough appearance, teacher Feng had a kind and caring heart. Many years later I connected with her via a video chat. She asked why I was still so skinny and said I should look after myself better.
Next time I am in GuangZhou, I will visit Teacher Feng and cook her a big bowl of hot seaweed and egg soup.’
Ah, I can understand why Bo has been posting his dinners each night. Somehow he found deep connection with his food.
The traditional egg soups are often made of ‘egg flowers’, means scrambling the eggs in hot water. I found scrambling eggs with seaweed was too messy.
So here is my version of a ‘neat’ seaweed and egg soup.
My best friend’s late mother, whom I dearly called Auntie Wong, used to make this herbs and spices infused soup for me. The wonderful aroma filled their small inner city apartment and floated down the narrow common corridor as I walked out the lift. I instantly felt at home, safe, warm and loved.
Besides being a fantastic cook, Auntie Wong was an amazing woman with many talents. Once a circus acrobat in Malaysia, she was retrained as a dentist. ‘It was so difficult at the beginning,’ she said, ‘there was this old lady with no teeth, and I could not figure out how to attach the denture.’ She grinned, ‘lucky that I was young and good looking at the time. I had lots of helps.’
Here is my simple meat and bone soup, with fond memories of Auntie Wong. Somehow my soup never tasted as good as Auntie Wong’s. She had added a lot more love to the soup.