Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Our Daily Bread

Blogger Gilbert of Block 13 wrote about his Humble Beginnings. He said; "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."

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.


Victor said...

Yalor, and my kids can pass remarks like "Chicken rice again today ah? So sian."


iml said...

When mechanical pencils were 1st available in the 70s, how I wished I had one. Alas it was just too extravagant for a Primary student like me.

Victor said...

So I see that you have lengthened this article. When I saw only 3 paras yesterday, I thought to myself, "That's not quite you." (You know what I mean.)

A longer article calls for a longer comment. When I was a kid, my mum used to buy tau huay (soft soya bean curd meant to be eaten as a dessert). She would bring along a tin mug (the same type featured in your previous post but bigger), buy 10 cents of sugarless tau huay which would fill the tin mug almost to the brim. We would use the tau huay as cheap 'topping' for our bowls of white rice. Add light soya sauce to taste and the whole family of 7 can have a meal for less than 20 cents. Surprisingly, this simple meal tasted quite nice. You should try it one day if you have never tasted such a dish.

Anonymous said...

I believe chye poh is preserved turnips.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know it is not turnip but carrot - lor pak in Cantonese; or chai tau in Teochew

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks for the story Victor. Guys of our generation are very 'ting hua' (obedient). PM asks for stories, and immediately we oblige.

Hope other 'laudies' (oldies) can also share their stories.

BTW, remember how we used to bring along our own eggs to save on the price of char kuay teow or chye tau kueh?

Lam Chun See said...

I wrote the 3 paras sort of off-the-cuff after that dinner conversation with my family. This morning, after re-reading it, I realised that it was quite incomplete and the dish needed more 'liao' (ingredients)

Anonymous said...


I believe chye por is known as dried radish.

Anonymous said...

Chicken rice, chye poh, chye tau kueh.. etc all found in our hawker centres. I was in a state of shock when a freind of mine told me his kids refused to eat at the hawker centre... reason -- They won't eat in non air con places. They really got it easy, but I think they will have a tough time when they are in NS.

fr said...

Besides salted eggs, 'fu yu' and 'tao see' (both read in cantonese) also go well with porridge.

Then when Mother didn't buy much food, we just cracked a raw egg over a plate of hot rice, add soya sause and mixed...also very nice.

Chris Sim said...

I guess I was lucky. I didn't eat tau huey with rice, nor chye-por with porridge. Still, our dishes were simple fare - not roast duck, chicken or prawn. But rather, Ma-Ling luncheon meat, fried eggs, salted egg/fish and the occasional fried fish. Simple but tasted just as good. As for hawker fare, my parents could hardly afford them. On the few occasion that they did, they would buy 2 packets of Char Kway Teow (yes, with our own eggs) and shared by we four kids.

Kids these days are very "ho miah", yet they are very picky on their food.

Even NS food is not the same as before. They are no longer prepared by army cook, but are catered instead. They taste quite heavenly.

Lam Chun See said...

Talking about army food, I don't know whether it was a simple case of hard-up or not, but the fried chicken served in Safti in 1971 was very nice you know; especially the chilli. Peter seemed to think highly of it. Alas we were limited to only 1 pce per person. How we envied the officers who not only got served but had unlimited helpings.

Anonymous said...

Chun See,

No lah it was ala "Swee Kee Chicken Rice".

My birthday cake then was: 1 plate of white rice topped with a fried egg with black sauce. Not that my parents could not afford it: we had to live frugality and think of those who who could not afford to buy a meal. So leaving some grains of rice on the plate after a meal was considered bad. Today if you don't throw a party and have the Sweet Temptation New York cake, you are not with the times. Maybe this is the price for ignoring old values right?

I like to hear what were the good qualities of a wife from your "Kampung Weddings" article. I was told that if a woman you marry had good bums, she sure to bear you plenty of kids. Did you hear that?

Anonymous said...

During the kampong days, there were two old ladies making their rounds to our place, one selling chee cheong fun and the other selling yam cakes. The yam cake seller was actually a retired 'amah cheh'. She would cut the cakes in small portions, sprinkled with bits of mushroom, ground-nuts, dried shrimps, celery, fragant oil, and chilli sauce (on request), all home-made. Each portion was priced something like 10 cts per portion. No sale pitch was needed. The food was so good that kampong folks were on constant look-out for her arrival. It was a sad day when we noticed that she did not turn up, but memories of her food were still in the minds of the villagers after all these years.

Lam Chun See said...

Come to think of it, it's surprising how our parents ate so much sugar and lard, yet diabetes and heart problems relatively rare. My mum did have a bit of diabetes tho, but that was when she was quite advanced in age.

Chris Sim said...

True, our forefathers were made of hardier stuff. But I think our national health began to take a nosedive on the arrival of Fast Food. Agree?

Anonymous said...

It is reported that when hydrogenated oil was introduced sometime in 1930 (?), heart diseases went up accordingly. The same goes with fast foods which are also closely linked to obesity problems. However, it is difficult to avoid these foods & oil, but at least we can go slow on them.

Anonymous said...

alex is right.. chye poh is preserved radish.

Anonymous said...

wow....... can't believe these things has happened in Singapore in the past. Really hard to believe. All along, I thought we're fairly well to do........ din realised back in the olden days, the life was so different.

Hawker centres was actually a luxury?!

Now I realised how blessed I am....... yah, I'm one of those picky ones....... about where I eat

From now on, I'll be more grateful for everything we get to enjoy nowadays.......

Alan Heah said...

Hello, Mr Lam, Victor & everyone:

This comment comes a little late;

I agree with Victor's comment (#1) that
children are picky with what they eat.
My 4 year old son, for example...

But about the typical chicken rice
these days, the way they are cooked in
that oil (what oil is it?); and the
chilli, so strangely biting; both
combine on occasions to give even us
adults stomach upsets.

No wonder then that children, whose
tastes may be more sensitive than ours,
might notice the difference & poorer
standards in the now ubiquitous dish.

More of a case of the younger ones
lacking the fortune to taste the
better, authentic stuff.


(Please forgive the poor Chinese.)

Sigh...commercialism & fast food...