|Photo by Sarawakiana : 9 Layer Kuih (There are lots of beautiful photos of nyonya kuihs on Google too)|
When my mother from Ah Nang Chong or Lower South Village, was newly married she had to face the normal new " daughter in law and new sister in law" kind of orientation. Some of the activities were very positive, some a little daunting to say the least.
While my late father was very much in love with her, as it was an after-the Japanese-Occupation marriage, she was not too sure about the family she was marrying into. First of all, she had to step out of her countryside background to be among the trendy town folks.
Her father-in-law was of a stern character and a man of firmness. His word was law in the family. She also told us that her own father was stern and was not at all showy in affections for all his children. Grandfather Lau Kah Chui was a rubber planter, an agriculturalist brought in by Wong Nai Siong and he was determined to fulfill his dreams of owning a lot of rubber land and rice paddies. He did but his hard work caused his early death. Mum was hardly 15 when she lost her father.
She was tasked to cook and look after a Grandmother-in-law, a well meaning lady and very soft spoken. No words were ever raised in front of her. Great Grandma and my mother got on very well especially in the kitchen.
When relatives visited, nyonya kuih bought from the town, or brought by one of them, among other goodies were served first as "dian ning". Conversations were always very animated in the living room by the river side as the ladies sipped their tea.
However, Mum was always asked to slaughter a chicken and prepare the mee sua at the back of the house. Big bowls were always brought out to indicate Foochow generosity and hospitality. "Duai" or big bowls gave a lot of face. After having the mee sua in the kitchen, which was joined to the main house by a verandah, the relatives would re-enter the living room and continue to chat while my mother would clear the bowls, and wash the pots and clear up the kitchen.
A little daunted, she learned from the town folks that kuih was not part of sanba people's sub culture. With such a remark or two heard over the first two years, my mother decided to learn the art of nyonya kuih making. Today after more than 65 years, her yam cakes, and nine layer kuih for example are still very top range. Her secret tip given to us : always use the best dried prawns and never be short of such an ingredient in your cupboard.
She was also carefully taught how to use a small fork to eat kuih by my father.
Our late paternal grandmother Siew once commented, "Most town relatives had already learned about fine dining from the foreign pastors. The young ladies educated in Yuk Ing Girls' school have benefitted from Mrs. Hoover's teaching." On the other hand, my mother went to Kai Nang Primary school and then Chung Cheng Secondary School. She was a Kai Nang primary school teacher for three years before she married my father in 1948. My father first saw her at a jetty in Ensurai, carrying two pails of water from the river. His first thought of her was, "What a strong woman!" Sometimes my mother would whimsically say to us, "My father was too poor to send me to town to study in Yuk Ing Girls' School and be trained by Mrs. Hoover. In comparison, I hardly know English...and you are all English speaking!!"
Always trying to improve herself, she learned how to cook some "town dishes" from my father. A very significant dish she learned was how to cook curry from my paternal grandfather's only sister, Grand Aunt, or Goo Poh, Chang Yuk Ging. This curry which we call Foochow Goo Poh's Curry is well loved and is often served by my daughter in Kuala Lumpur and my children in Perth.
Nowadays,whenever I see nyonya kuih muih or whenever I eat some, I would be thinking of the young,timid,soft spoken, pretty bride who had to adapt herself in a large extended family.
(This posting is dedicated to all my siblings and children and Ari my grandson, who has Nyonya and Baba bloodline )