Where have I been missing for so long? Happily busy as commented by a new reader of mine? Yea, I would say so. Currently my tasks are getting heavier, where I see myself working later and later but there is one other thing that is making me go crazy, preparing to be a bridesmaid and helping out in my sister’s wedding! Oh boy, now I know that planning for wedding needs so much of an attention. Every little details counts for big things.
Anyway, enough bout me as I am here to tell you a story about an amazing woman. I mentioned about my Lai Ma in my Chinese New Year great feast at her home. I practically spend the first 4 years of my life at her humble home, surrounded with lots of love from her, her husband and her children. There were also chaos and mischief as I had my dear god sister U and her brother as partners in crime.
The story of how Lai Ma became my nanny started like this. My first nanny was not her, but another lady somewhere in Aulong (a suburb of Taiping) and at that time I was about few months old. My mum had to send me to a nanny because she was working and could not take care of me full time. So one fine day, my Pho Pho(grandma) decided to give me a visit, and took a cab to Aulong. She found me at the hall, crying pitifully, desperate for a nappy change and yet with no one attending to me. As she reminisced to me, she found the nanny happily cooking in the kitchen seemingly unaware of my predicament. That was enough for Pho Pho where she called up my mum immediately, and with a recommendation from a distant relative, my mum drove right over after work, pick me up and drove me straight to my Lai Ma’s house. That was how Lai Pa described, where I came in my mum’s car late in the evening, in need of love and attention right into their home that was never deprived of those. And so begin my years of growing up there.
I would say it had been the shaping years of my life, trust me we children do absorb everything like sponge during the first 5 years of our lives from family and people surrounding us. So environment counts and lucky for me, it was a great one. After that it is the school, the teacher and then to friends. So if you had just turned into a mum or are expecting, remember this, the next 5 years is the time you take to shape your child. Anyway, not to divert, so my Lai Ma, her husband and her three children (all in their teens then) had shaped me in many ways. When I finally move back permanently with my family, I somehow felt I was different, albeit a bit on the stubborn and naughtier side due to fact that I was exposed to peers other than your own siblings, so I was somehow the stronger and mischievous one in school, but that would be another story.
Quite a pity though as when I was young, I was a rascal who refused to eat. All I want to do was play, play and just play. So when it comes to meal time, it was either wham bam thank you ma’am and then rush off to continue whatever game that we were in, or it would be a long torturous road of trying to cheat me into finishing my meal. This was how un-tham jiak I was when I was young. Maybe I did not know how to appreciate food then, which I make up real well now, I hope. I even shied away from Malaysia’s king of fruit, the durian when I was young and no amounts of coaxing or brain-washing can make me eat it. This was another real pity thing as my Lai Pa goes to an estate all the time, to hunt wild boars (yes, hunting with big long guns that you would only see in the movies) and also harvest many wonderful fresh local fruits, and one that always came back fresh from falling off the tree is the durian.
So now I am all grown up, appreciating food in its myriad of tastes, smells and textures, that I see how much I have missed then, oh and yea, I do eat durian now and enjoy it very much. Funny how much one’s taste can change so much as they grew up. My Lai Ma’s cooking was superb, sadly that I realized this so much later, but still not too late fortunately. I also learnt that she was an excellent baker only after I had left Taiping for studies, where her husband and children had once bought her a huge mixer (maybe it was smallest at that time), that lasted her for more than 20 years until now, where in occasions I got to use to bake a few cakes with her and even made my first virgin cheesecake at her place, her acclaimed best recipe from those who had tried. It was a really cool stand mixer, like a KitchenAid of that time, where I believed I would have dream and wish for it then like how I wish for KitchenAid now.
From the recent Chinese New Year (the most celebrated occasion for the Chinese every year is still vividly fresh in my mind), I had managed to learn one of her ‘secret’ recipe, the young papaya pickle. It is thinly sliced young papaya soaked in Chinese rice vinegar, sugar and sliced chillies, in glass containers, which can last for ages but it never does, not in my household anyway. I was lucky last year when once during a visit to her house, she had just made a big batch, soaking in few glass containers of various sorts such as jam jar, taucu jar (her favourite) and other sauces jar, just like how we Chinese like to keep these containers/bottles/boxes for ‘just in case’s, which this time, rarely I might say, was really put to good use. She even reminded me to bring back the container the next time I come back so that it can be reuse for more pickled papayas! So, this year when I visit her again, I casually mentioned that I had brought back the containers for her (proudly as I was really famous for forgetfulness, especially in her household of really keen and responsible people), and she was indeed surprised and happy. Then I also casually mentioned that I simply looove those pickled papayas, where I polished off in just a week and had been yearning for more since then. She perk up immediately to know I enjoy it so much and offered immediatly “it is so very easy to make, let me make a batch for you to bring back tomorrow!” I was thrilled yet worried as my plan was to go back with my cousin was right after breakfast, which she waved off as no problem as she said it can be done in a jiffy.
Come the next day, my mum fetched me to Lai Ma’s house early in the morning before meeting my cousin for breakfast to pick up my precious pickled papayas. My mum was also very intrigued and want to give it a try, which later I passed one jar to her (later claimed by her to be excellent) and took two jar back home to PJ. Yes, my dear Lai Ma had made a huge batch for me, where she had skipped her daily morning walk that day just to get to the market early to buy papaya, come back and then slice and soak them just in time for me to pick up before I leave. I felt so loved, people say food is the way to a man’s heart, for me that is the way to a child’s heart, yes I am still very much a child to her, for me at least, and for all time to come I’m sure.
Young Papaya Pickle
When I asked my Lai Ma how do I know how to pick an unripe papaya that is just right for this pickle, my Lai Pa was right there listening, and as I said that he was a wise food enthusiast too, he told me straight away “when you just see a tiny hint/streak of yellow on a green papaya, then that papaya is just right for pickling”. See, I told you my Lai Pa was a wise food enthusiast (and also in many other areas of life, I’m compelled to add), he gave me such an easy and fool-proof method to my pickling journey! The recipe below is more of an estimation as it really depends how much papaya slices you can get from your papaya, how strong your rice vinegar is, and how sweet and spicy you want it to be, so follow it as a guideline and then taste as you go on.
Green with a hint/streak of yellow papaya (sliced thinly)
Chinese Rice vinegar
Red chillies (sliced in inches)
Put the sliced papaya into a jar (from your stashed of ‘just in case’ glass containers)
Pour in rice vinegar to 3 quarter full (do not add to full as the papaya will produce more water as it pickle)
Put in sugar to taste, stir in each addition and continue tasting to just right
Throw in few slices of chillies (as many as you like, but for mine I saw bout 1-2 chilly for a jar)
From time to time, give it a turn around (i.e. spoon bottom to top and vice versa so that all the papayas could get to soak), with a really clean dry spoon.
After a while all the papaya will be happily soaking in rice vinegar and its own juices, so then onwards you can keep as long as you want, just remember to take out with clean spoon every time. (Psst, sometimes I dip in with my fingers when I could not resist but no worries, mine do not need to be stored for long anyway).
P/S: I am submitting this entry to Apples & Thymes to celebrate my Lai Ma, just like a mother to me and a mother to her lovely children, and how she play a big part in my life and my love for food.
Update: The lovely round-up of Apples & Thyme can be found at Mele Cotte.