Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Food on the table and savings for tertiary education

When my father passed away suddenly, prematurely and untimely at the age of 56 in 1965, my mother was traumatised and saddled with seven children all below 16 with my youngest brother at only 11 months old.

The world had fallen apart and she had no income at all because after she married my father, she was not allowed to earn a living. My mother had to sell precious property to settle some debts my father owed his brothers,partly because he had not completed his tasks. And we eventually had a small property from which she collected some rental enough for our meals. Apart from that little income we had very little else. But every month we received a gift of a note of 50 dollars from our dear aunt Lily from Singapore without fail for about 9 years until I, the eldest, started teaching. Her monthly gift accompanied by a short note to recognise warmly my mum as sister in law was the one thing that motivated my mother to live on and raise her family in spite of all odds and tribulations.

It was her creativity and stoical approach towards life that helped her manage and feed the family as well as to send us to university. I was specially blessed because I received a special scholarship from the United Methodist Church of America which inspired me to be a teacher for life.

My mother was extremely frugal in food preparation but we did not starve as children.

If she was a TV celebrity chef, my mother would have an excellent programme to help women prepare excellent food and yet save enough to put children through university.

One of her favourite dishes would include the use of Tianjin preserved vegetables. And all of us children , including my own children continue to find her dishes wonderful till the end of our lives.

This preserved tianjin vegetable (天津冬菜),is similar to the salt pickled vegetable, or yancai (腌菜) of Guizhou cuisine, but the former takes much longer to prepare than the latter, usually half a year. Another clear distinction between the two is that instead of having two separate steps of salt pickling and then fermentation, the salt pickling and fermentation is combined in a single step that takes a much longer time:

Chinese cabbage is mixed with salt and garlic together and then fermented, which creates the unique garlic flavor / taste and golden color. In order to preserve the unique taste, Tianjin preserved vegetable is often used for soups, fishes, and stir fried and directly eaten.

The Foochows call this little urn vegetable (Ern Yang Cai) and we use it a lot and in as many dishes as possible.

It is indeed indispensible in fish ball soup ,steamed egg ,steamed minced pork,pork and tianjin vegetable buns or dumplings, plain tianjin vegetable soup, egg and tianjin vegetable soup, steamed fish with tianjin vegetable,etc.

This wonderful vegetable cost only 30 cents per jar at that time, and it could be used for as many meals as five or six. Its fragrance and aroma would fill the whole house and our appetite could be aroused.

While my mum in her grief would just eat plain cold rice with sweet tea and salted fish, we would have our plain rice with egg and tianjin vegetable soup. And that was one happy meal accounted for!

Today whenever one of my children is sick, she would ask for grandma's sugary tea and salted fish rice. And recently I found out that in one Japanese food outlet, there is indeed such a dish called tuna fish with rice in tea at 6.90 ringgit a bowl!! My mother was eating that forty years ago.

In those fatherless days, we got to my mother's table happy just to watch her serve her warm dishes cooked from her heart. We really liked her steamed egg. This special dish is made by beating only two eggs( sometimes only one) with equal portion of water,some salt and pepper and topped with some tianjin vegetables. And then steamed quickly. Again, it is heavenly. The Maggi Company demonstrated how this dish could be cooked on Malaysian TV in the seventies.

Thus we learned from an early age, especially from my mother's table, that if we prepared our food frugally but not poorly, we could still save a lot of our earnings for tertiary education. None of my siblings received scholarships from the government. They had MBF or Mama and Baba's Fund.

My mother is still the best person in the world for stretching the dollar......and we are the richer for it. Very rich indeed. And very educated.

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