Saturday, June 17, 2006

Humble Beginnings

In the beginning I knew only of my brother and myself. We did not use the English names we use now; instead he was called Ah Teck and I, Ah Heo, both of which betrayed our Hokkien ancestry. For my brother his name was of special significance – it means bamboo in Hokkien, and indeed Ah Teck was as thin as his namesake, and I was not much better. Unfortunately we were not of the merchant class; our father was a bus-driver and our family was big, which meant only one thing – poverty. And yet we were not as poor as others were poor, at the least we had a roof over our heads, thanks to the widespread provision of inexpensive housing. Still, in the face of household expenditure, school fees, textbook expenses and spending on clothes, there was rarely enough to go around every month.

Our father did all he could to procure food for us. Rarely did we have anything much more than rice. Our meals were supplemented now and then with ‘phor’, that is to strengthen the constitution, we would buy the cheapest slab of pork liver, layer it with ginger strips and a pinch of salt and blanch the mixture in boiling water to make a soup – the poor man’s tonic.

Our diet was exceedingly meagre, at most thin gruel with soya sauce and occasionally achar, a pickled vegetable or perhaps ikan bilis, tiny silver fishes dried in the heat of the sun and fried with a little chilli.

At times, we slept with empty stomach or water filled stomach to ease the hunger. It was hard for Dad to see us suffer and on the flip side, we knew that Dad borrowed and pawned in order to keep the family.

Chicken is served on the table once a year on Chinese New Year. The prized cut being the chicken thighs were reserved for my third sister and my youngest brother. Both of them, Dad’s favourites - the brightest and the youngest.

Meal consists mainly of a meagre portion of meat and the occasional braised duck and pig. We had coffee shop near Block 13 with a stall selling braised duck and pig. Dad would send us to queue up before the stall opens for business. The standard instruction is to get three duck heads and a dollar of pig head and ear meat. The reason was obvious, they are cheap.

There was the infrequent wedding dinner, where it is customary to bring along pots so that leftovers would be muddled up. The concoction is a superior stew of sorts would last us for days. This was the only luxury, we knew of at that time.

My brother and I will labouriously search through the stew and shout out in ecstasy if we would find a piece of meat or fish.

Those were the days of insufficiency and we learnt quickly to appreciate whatever was placed on the table.

1 comment:

Nostalgic said...

I have great memories of that stall that sold braised duck.
Do you still remember the eating stalls next to the wet market?
I truly miss the chee cheong fun, the fried carrot cake , the Soon Kueh and the Kway Chap! You can't find such good food cooked in the good, old way these days.
Hi, Gilbert, which school were you from? I was from Mattar Pr Sch.