Grandma

What can I say about Grandma? She was probably the most amazing cook in our family when she was alive and in her younger days. She had an encyclopaedic range of Hakka recipes to be found in a person. Her temper was somewhat mercurial when I was living with her, which I suppose you would be when you had 9 kids to bring up and back then grandpa was a clerk for the government which did not pay a lot and definitely was not quite enough with that many mouths to feed.

To compensate, grandma used to raise pigs, kept chickens and had a vegetable patch, which also supplemented the family income when there was excess produce, in order to put food on the table.

To say it was a hard life is probably understating it. To give them credit, grandma and grandpa managed to raise their children to adulthood, giving them at least a high school education, then managed to scrape together enough money to send their sons overseas to Australia for university. The girls however had to make their own way for their further education. It wasn’t fair I suppose, but it was a hard life and I guess they did what they thought was right and what they were able to afford at the time.

Anyway, back to grandma’s cooking.

I had my first hand experience of her cooking when I was to sent to live with her, grandpa and my uncles in Adelaide in the early 80s when I was old enough to start high school in Australia. I won’t bore anyone with my experience of growing up in Adelaide, considering this is a recipe blog after all. The dishes I remember grandma use to cook were all quite hearty and definitely very filling. This is the kind of food that a hill dwelling Hakka peasant would eat and be able to go all day tilling the rocky ground or building a communal round house. If you were trying to count your calories, you can forget it if you were living with her!

Some of the recipes I managed to get from her were by asking her directly, spying on her when she was cooking, or reverse engineered later when I tried to replicate what she did. Others I never did managed to get off her as she claimed they were too complicated or too whatever to make for me. Never set me a challenge like that!

Of the recipes she did share, the simplest dish, which mum also gave me tips on, was pigs’ trotters in black vinegar sauce. When cooked properly, it is a gelatinous, sweet, sour, unctuous, calorific delight to be consumed with vast amounts of steamed rice. Possibly accompanied by a dish of plain garlic flavoured greens.

Black Vinegar & Garlic Pigs’ Trotters

Ingredients:

  • about a kilo of cleaned pigs trotter. Ask the butcher to cut into one inch rounds – like mini osso buccos. Leave the skin on!
  • Chinese Black vinegar, also known as sweet vinegar.
  • 1 whole head of garlic peeled, and crushed with the flat side of a large knife
  • a large piece of ginger – around 1.5 inch, peeled and bashed to flatten, or sliced if you prefer
  • Dark soy sauce
  • white vinegar
  • sugar
  • salt
  1. Heat a large pan, preferably non-stick to make things easier, on medium high heat until hot. Then throw in the ginger, the garlic and the meat. There is no need to add any oil.
  2. When the pork pieces changes colour add about 1/4 cup of the black vinegar, a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a couple of tablespoons of the soy sauce.
  3. Stir to coat the meat and the herbs in the sauce. When it starts to bubble, cover and turn the heat down to low to stew for the next hour. Check the liquid level from time to time, make sure that there is at least about half an inch to an inch of liquid at the bottom. If too dry then add water to make it up to the level.
  4. Taste the sauce after about an hour – it should be sweet, salty, gingery, garlicky and a bit tangy. If not sharp enough to your taste, add a splash of white vinegar. It should be like a sweet and sour pickle in taste. If too sharp then add a teaspoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, to “round off the flavour” as my mum would say.
  5. Let it gently stew for at least an hour until you can easily pierce the skin with a skewer – the meat should be very tender and the fat under the skin should be almost translucent. If not then leave it to cook for another 30 minutes.
  6. If you are health concious, then you can let the stew cool in the fridge and then spoon/scrape out the fat that sets on top. The sauce will set to a jelly when cold.
  7. Eat the stew hot with steamed white rice and a plain stir fried chinese green or stir fried chinese lettuce.
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I Cook Therefore I Am…

I was born in Malaysia and I grew up in a household that loved food.

Whether it was something that took my mother 3-4 days to cook or something that takes only 5 minutes, we, the kids, ate everything that was placed in front of us at least once before we are allowed to say we don’t like it. Then again not that our opinions mattered, we were usually told to eat whatever was placed in front of us. End of conversation.

Funnily enough most of what I can remember of the food was not just the strong flavours but also the various textures ranging from the usual crunchy, soft, hard to the slippery, slimy, and other more exotic mouth feel. We learnt to eat whole fish on the bone as small children – how to pick out the small bones from the sweet flesh. If we did accidentally swallow a bone, we were taught to swallow a big mouthful of plain steamed rice in order to dislodge the bone from our throat. We learnt to love curries, steamed chicken, offal, sea cucumber, tree moss, tofu, fried fish, prawn paste, agar jelly and durian. Then dad decided we needed to also develop a more Western palate, we were introduced to the joys of French fries, pepper steak served on a hot metal plate, chicken in a basket, cream of mushroom soup, garlic bread and escargot in garlic butter. We were mastering the escargot clamp long before Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman. And we did not send any snails into the stratosphere either like she did.

I was around 7 or 8 I think when mum, who was at one stage a home economics teacher at a girl’s school, taught my sister and I our first dish. The recipe was making rock cakes. Back then, in the 70s, in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, western ingredients were hard to come by. There was one supermarket in town that sold goods geared for the very small local European expat community. Butter was very expensive and was usually imported from somewhere exotic like France or England, all prettily wrapped up in foiled paper. The dried fruit, well, were very dry by the time they reached the shelves there or had small moving inhabitants moving around within the packet. It wasn’t until much later that I realised sultanas aren’t meant to be like tiny hard pebbles designed to break your teeth.

Anyway, back to the rock cakes. Mum actually splurged in order to teach her daughters the culinary arts. She bought, I think, the Sunmaid mixed dried fruit, a large tin of Planta margarine, some expensive caster sugar ( there was a sugar shortage at the time due to some political happenings in the Phillipines ) and some other ingredients I forget. We were taught how to cream the sugar and the margarine til it was white, add in the flour( sifted to remove the weevils ), fruit, spices and other bits and bobs – I think there was an egg in there somewhere or milk or liquid of some description. We then dropped spoonful of the stuff onto a biscuit tray that had been buttered and floured, then popped it into the oven. Then we sat back and waited impatiently. I can’t honestly say I remember what it tasted like, but I do remember thinking they looked like yellow rocks when they came out of the oven. The bits of sultanas and currents looked like something my dog left behind on one of her bad days. I don’t remember if anyone ate them or whether mum gave them to the maid and the gardener because none of the kids would eat it after the first few mouthfuls. Actually I vaguely remember the dog didn’t think much of the rock cakes also.

However even though this exercise did not show me at the time that I would actually enjoy homemade baked goods, it did plant the seed of the joys of cooking in me, and I have been cooking not just for the hunger, but for the fun of it since.

So, you may ask, what am I doing here on this blog then? Well, at the risk of sounding like a complete twat, most people I know nowadays do not cook. Not because they don’t want to but mostly because they have no time, have never been shown how to cook and a myriad other reasons. There are a lot of old family recipes out there, that your grandparents, favourite auntie or uncle, best friend’s family etc would have cooked with but now is in danger of disappearing because no one in the family have the time to learn to cook these. I want to share the recipes that I picked up from my family with you and also I would love to have your recipes along with the stories behind them so that these precious and rare family recipes do not disappear forever.

So come on – Let’s share recipes and let’s cook!