Earlier this evening I shared this at dinner table with my children and my wife recounted an incident from her childhood days in Ipoh. This would be in the 1960's.
One day, her primary school English teacher was teaching the class the meaning of the word Cheese. It turned out that none of the kids knew what that was and what it tasted like. So the kind teacher brought a piece to class and peeled off tiny pieces for each of the kids try. I suppose cheese was a luxury and teachers' salaries were pretty low in those days.
I am reminded of some of the 'humble' dishes that my family used to partake when we were kampong kids.
One of the common dishes that we frequently ate for lunch before leaving for afternoon class in primary school was 'chye poh' cooked in sugar. What you get is cubes of chye poh in thick sugary gravy which we usually ate with plain porridge. Sorry I cannot recall the English word for chye poh. It's the stuff you find on top of the chui kuehs. Alternatively, she would cook the similar dish using salted vegetables instead of chye poh.
For cooking oil, we usually bought 'pui bak' or fat portions of pork which were then cut into cubes and fried to obtain the lard. I remember seeing my mum apply a layer of cool lard onto a slice of bread and eat it for breakfast.
Occasionally, we had peanut butter. Do you know how to make a jar of peanut butter last longer? Let me teach you - not that you are likely to need this know-how. Scoop the peanut butter onto a frying pan, add water and sugar and fry until you get a more fluid paste which can be spread on bread easily. You can easily convert a small jar of sticky peanut butter into a tub of sweet-smelling, bread spread.
As one of my readers, Zen commented in my earlier post about Kampong Weddings, one of the most important qualities for a good wife in those kampong days, was frugality; the ability to manage a household with the minimum budget. With many kids and a low income, this was an essential skill. My mum augmented that skill by telling us stories of Chinese scholars of old; how they studied hard and scrimped on their food. One particular story was about this guy who studied late into the night and employed needles to prick himself every time he dozed off. Another chap was able to survive for days on a single piece of salted egg and porridge.
1953 photo of my mother with one-year-old me
Our prime minister wants us to share such stories with the young. I am not too sure the above stories are helpful for my kids. My wife and I already have a difficult time getting them to eat more. Whenever my son tries to scrimp on his lunch (for his precious aquarium fishes and pitcher plants, no doubt), he gets a scolding from my wife; "You think your parents cannot afford it meh?"
My, how the times have changed.