Monday, October 22, 2007

Smelly Root Soup, Chop Chai Hin and Sundry Shops of Sibu

I have yet to find out the scientific name of this special root which has helped all my siblings to grow physically healthy and mentally strong. It is a concoction that we were given whenever we felt tired. My grandmother would alway prescribe that as an antidote for any ills. Perhaps it was because of this traditional root that we are all very hard working children.

In the olden days, all Foochow parents nursed the hope that their children would be hardworking so that they could have "something to eat". Howcver today, Foochow parents hope their children would become dragons and successful people who drive three mercedes Benz.

In those young and faraway days of mine, my mother would buy a bundle of these roots imported from China from a sundry shop which was mainly family owned and which sold everything. She would check the smell,quality, colour and size of the roots. A good discussion would ensue on the significance of brewing the herb with the shopkeeper. That would take several minutes as business was familiar and extremely slow. The shopowner normally would enjoy such a conversation with a customer. He would have a chance to show his knowledge and in a slow humble way, the customer would walk away very happy knowing that she had purchased some goods wisely.

Upon bring the roots home, my mother would sit down on her stool and start chopping the roots slowly. It was a hard job as the roots were really hard to chop. I can still remember how she lovingly chopped the roots carefully, put them in neat piles, and then wash them , getting them ready for the pot.

Before we had gas for our kitchen, we had the wonderful Chinese stove with three stove tops and a nice chimney rising from the side of the house. We children would chop wood for the fire in the evenings and make a racket at the back of the house. It was always good to see a good wood pile, ready for my mother to use. In a small way, this kind of preparation gave us a lot of satisfaction in life. Wood piles for cooking always crack me up today.

The smelly root soup is made from boiling this particular herbal root for a few hours. When all the goodness has been extracted from the chopped pieces of the roots, the soup is added to a chicken, or a kilo or so of pork leg, or a duck for another two hours of slow boiling.

The resulting brew is good for the tired and aching body. My siblings and I enjoyed the nourishment provided and naturally we felt that our mother was looking after us very well. In later years, we remember her tender loving care very very often. Thoughtful Foochow mothers show their love in many ways, especially in preparation of nourishing herbal soups. She had hoped that after we drank the soup, we would study very hard. In a way we all did study very hard and went to university.

On the other hand, having said so much about this particular smelly root soup, my thoughts digress again to the once familiar, old fashioned shops I grew up with . I really miss them nowadays when I do my shopping in supermarkets which are indifferent, cold, and inpersonal.

The shop that I loved was called Chai Hin, (or Progressively Wealthy)located along Kampong Nyabor Road and just opposite the Sibu Malay Union Club. It had the typical Foochow or Sibu sundry shop interior decor. It had bags of rice , corn, flour ,copra scraps (for ducks) and other cereals and animal feed on one side of the shop. And on the other side of the shop, one would find huge glass bottles containing sugar, biscuits, and other goodies. Tins and tins of biscuits and preserved meat, vegetables would be arranged neatly on the glass cabinets. Then whatever could be arranged in boxes would also occupy one front portion of the shop, like mee sua or long life noodles, dried yellow noodles, mee hoon, and other dried vegetables from China. This little front portion display of goods was the main attraction for customers. Tins of cooking oil, and other supplies would be towards the back portion of the shop. And at the extreme back portion, the family would have a little stove for cooking of meals. A small collapsible table, or if the space is enough, a wooden square table would be placed at the back with some nice wooden stools for the family. This table would also double as the study table for the children to study.

We literally saw the family prosper and get educated. Mary the daughter prospered and became a leading English teacher in Kuching. One of the sons is a business man and the shop owner and his wife went to China and other places towards the later part of their lives. Most probably they also accumulated a very large fixed deposit in a bank. This is considered Sibu Foochow success or life achievement.

Such a Chinese convenience shop and familiarity and long lasting relationship with the proprietor's family was just so much part of our life that we did not realise that it was suddenly gone when supermarkets took over.

So each time I prepare smelly root soup for any one in the family, memories would flood back and I can still imagine the quaint mixture of sourish smells and fragrances of the copra, flour, sago, and salted vegetables.

With a sigh...I would just linger for a few moments more mentally. A part of the Foochow neighbourly spirit is gone forever with the influx of malls and fancy stores.

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