My mum and her siblings became the typical sandwich generation (e.g.three generations with grandmother and my mother and us children) living very frugally in Sibu in the 60's and 70's. My maternal grandmother would "visit" us during the weekends. And as kids we really looked forward to her two day stay. Sometimes she would stay longer especially during the long holidays. Later grandmother also experienced being "rotated" amongst the sons only. Many grandparents today also experience this (for better or for worse).
Once mum bought some fresh razor clams when my second sister was just about 8 and she had the job of removing the shells from the boiled razor clams. Mum had not told her to keep the soup and only to throw the shells away. So being the very efficient child she happily threw the shells and the precious soup away. I do not think my mother or grandmother (who was really looking forward to the good soup) ever scolded her at that time...may be they did "tsk tsk" for a while. But she was so traumatized that she would never eat razor clams ever after. She also deemed herself the dumbest kid in the world. Till this day she would never forget the razor clam incident.
I don't have a photo of fresh razor clams. Found this one from Google.
When my grandmother gradually lost her eyesight in her eighties. We knew that she would become totally blind after sometime. An operation would have cost a bomb at that time but what was more significant was that her health was not great enough to permit an eye operation. So she never had her cataracts removed (considering the technology at that time). She was totally visually impaired in the last four years of her life but she continued to visit us and travelled by the motor launch.
Being a very filial daughter mother would buy dried razor clams for her very often in those years knowing how much her mother loved this particular seafood. It is a Foochow or Chinese traditional belief that razor clams help a person to have good eye sight. Whenever grandma came to stay I would always see mother pulling out the special drawer where her savings were kept. She would take some money out and call one of us to go to the shops to buy razor clams or oysters to cook something special for grandma. We would just be so happy to run for her. ( Chinese phrase for this is "run leg" or pau jiau). Whenever she had some more money saved up she would stock up her cupboard with more tins of razor clams and oysters. Grandmother loved dried squids too so we also had quite a bit of squids wrapped in plastic bags hanging in the kitchen. And mum would always say that we must keep these items aside for grandma. These are acts of filial piety passed from one generation to the other. Mum has truly modelled the good values for us to follow. And I hope too my children would follow these values.
Sometimes mum would suddenly be asked to visit a relative who was not well so she would have an ever ready stock of goodies to choose from. And from her cupboard she would take out a few tins of this or that and add some fresh fruits or tins of Nestle milk to bring along. Mother would never go to another house empty handed.
Dried razor clams which are readily available in Chinese medicine shops in Miri and Sibu.
It is like a family tradition that I should have several tins of razor clams at any one time in my kitchen cupboard too. This is being very provident and always prepared so whenever visitors come I would cook HOONG NGANG or the big rice vermicelli in the Foochow style using razor clams as one of the main ingredients without a second thought.
The price of tinned razor clams has gone sky high. So I am stocking up again. I do also have a very great refugee instinct.
Tinned oysters : tip on how to use them - drain the fluid and wash them a little. You need to fry them first with the garlic and then add some minced meat before you add the water. The frying of the tinned oysters will help get rid of the fishy smell. Another tip - blanch the tou hoo before you add it to the boiling hot soup. Do not cook the tou hoo too long. 2-3 minutes would be just nice to maintain the silkiness of the tou hoo.
When my grandmother grew older one of the favourite dishes we cooked for her was Foochow Tou Hoo Soup with Oysters. Because at that time fresh oysters were not available in the market we had to use tinned ones. As a result until today we too would have an ever ready stock of tinned oysters in our cupboards. Sometimes tinned oysters become out of stock in the supermarkets so we have to either bear with the situation or we rest happy that we have some tins in the cupboard!!
Now there is again scarcity of tinned oysters in Miri and I have five tins left!! (Smile) It is also a Foochow thing to bring a few tins of oysters to our children whenever we go to see them in KL or elsewhere.
Whenever we talk about oysters we usually think about cooking it with bean curd.
Bean curd was always available in all the Foochow villages in the Rajang. Each village would have its own tou hoo maker. My mother's village Ah Nang Chong had one. He was a very good man who remained single all his life. Every day he would use his "pian dan" to carry his tou hoo from home to home. He also sold the best TIE PIAN in the whole of Rajang Valley (as it was claimed). And I really like all these stories about him.
According to my mother he was a very kind man who was soft spoken and patient. Why he never married no one would know. He passed away many years ago but many of my relatives still remember him fondly.
In Sibu we had two Lee families who made very good tou hoo. One of them is Lee Kong Toh whose son Lee Siew Chiong was our schoolmate in the Methodist School. He is nicknamed Tou Hoo Chiong until today. They used to live in 14B Hose Lane. Tou Hoo Chiong is a very successful businessman in Kuala Lumpur today.
The other Lee who made very good tou hoo married my mother's "adopted" fourth sister. Fourth Aunt and her husband were very kind people and we were always very happy to buy tou hoo from them. I believe my mother never bought tou hoo from any body else. Mum always claimed that Fourth Uncle's tou hoo was the best in the world - silky and sweet. This was indeed customer loyalty in the olden Sibu days.
The appearance of some chopped spring onions in the kitchen would make all of us excited about the soup of the day when we returned from school. And it would often be a tou hoo soup. I always consider Mother's cooking the best in the world.
And today as I look forward to my own soup I savour the memories which revolve around tou hoo and its related aspects.
Time flies and my mum's sandwich generation lifestyle has gone into the fading shadows of life. Who knows I will one day be the one receiving dried razor clams from my grandchildren and another sandwich generation would come about!
And wishing for you many days of good soups ahead.
a) Chow Tiong Kee (of Detroil Power Miri) my former student and now my friend who has many stories about Sibu.
b) Stories from my mother