For many of us, food is not just something we consume merely to sate our physical needs for survival. Extending far beyond that, food is what we enjoy with our loved ones, friends and family, as a vehicle to promote solidarity, camaraderie and togetherness. Food is what invokes and invigorates our senses, establishes a communal experience which evolves irrevocably into a shared memory, or an identity that eventually gets woven into a group’s rich history and cultural heritage. In short, food provides for many of us, a glimpse of our past and acts as an intangible extension into our future. Often times, such food are likely to be signature dishes unique to a cuisine or synonymous to a community. Yet food that possess such prowess and bestowed with such a mission isn’t necessarily elaborated or complicated. It is often the simplest things that leave a lifelong impression and sometimes, even an everlasting legacy.
When we were young, many weekends were spent at my grandma’s where my aunts and cousins would gather as well. I remember particularly looking forward to following my mum go back to her mum’s place for several reasons. Firstly, we got to take a cab! Grandma used to stay a distance from us and visiting her meant long bus journeys, not to mention changing feeder buses at the interchange. It was the pre-Translink card days without travelling rebates so given our family of four, taking a cab seemed the most logical thing to do. Those were the days of the yellow-top black taxis with rickety doors which needed a hard slam to close properly but I enjoyed the rides simply because the taxis had air-con! Secondly, grandma doted on us grandchildren down to the dribbles and drips, often having snacks prepared for us already which we got to eat upon our arrival. She would also secretly stuff our pockets with money behind our parents’ back! Being the eldest grandson, I was often assigned to run errands for her at the sundries shop just next block. I bought an assortment of things for her, from ingredients like eggs or flour which ran out on the last minute while preparing certain dishes, to her cigarettes. I loved it when she asked me to buy things for her because that meant I could keep the spare change! Knowing this, my cousins would sometimes offer to tag along, and this was when we would make a quick detour to the nearby playground to play with the slides, swings or see saw! Finally, I loved visiting Grandma when I was young because she was such a wonderful cook. With the help of my mom and aunts, Grandma’s kitchen came alive every Sunday afternoon as the women chatted vivaciously and exchanged the weekly gossips, usually about other family friends and relatives, or about the latest TV and movie film stars, while dinner preparations went on for the weekly feast. Popular dishes on the dining table which we all enjoyed were Tee Tor Tng, Chap Chye, Kari Ayam, Tau Yew Bak, Ikan Chuan Chuan, Ayam Char but our absolute favorite which everyone loved had to be Grandma’s Ngoh Hiang.
Since young, we learnt to eat simply. Not only were the dishes whipped up in our kitchen simple, but more importantly, we are taught to be contented with whatever is provided on the dining table. Thankfully, mom and grandma were both excellent cooks, able to conjure up a range of yummy food with the simplest of all ingredients. Eggs, the cheapest source of protein are a common sight for our meals but despite being so common, the dishes were never boring. From an assortment of omelettes to sunny side up soups, my mom knew exactly what makes us happy and our tummies filled. Sometimes our dinners were just a simple one-rice cooker or one wok meals, simplified versions of claypot rice, cabbage rice and even chicken rice all done within the comforts of one pot. One wok meals were also something worth looking forward too, first sending aromatic wafts from char kway teow, mee goreng, SPAM fried rice from the kitchen that permeated our small flat, whetting our appetites as we rushed to finish our homework, before tickling our palates. One particular one-wok dish stands out being most memorable, so simple to cook yet so immensely gratifying, and that is Mom’s 猪脚罐头炒米粉 Canned Braised Pig Trotters Bee Hoon.
Peranakan cooking is a classic example of an amalgamation of the culinary cultures from many ethnic groups who have lived closely together in this region for hundreds of years. It likens a ”Creole Cuisine“ of the East, blending together influences from Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai cooking all into a unique genre which we know today as “Straits Chinese cuisine”. Out of these influences came a myriad of dishes which have now become signatures of Straits Chinese cooking, whose names run analogous to the cuisine now. Ayam Masak Buah Keluak, Itek Tim, Babi Pongteh and Ikan Gerang Asam are some of the more iconic ones. Like many other Peranakan dishes, he Hee Pio soup has its origins in traditional Chinese cooking, particularly those from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. For many lovers of the cuisine, Hee Pio Soup is a simply must-have on the dining tables at family dinners, important gatherings, wedding celebrations and other joyous occasions where the “Tok Panjang” was served. While the concept of Tok Panjang has kind of waned and disappeared from the modern lifestyles of most Peranakan households, Hee Pio soup still makes its customary appearance whenever folks get together just to dine together in the company of one another.