Deceivingly delicious stew of leftovers
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 15, 2015, Sunday
WHAT I like about being a Malaysian is that we are always looking for opportunities to indulge in feasts to the extent of gluttony. There is always something to celebrate – birthdays, religious and seasonal festivals, births, death anniversaries – and the list goes on. Sometimes, we do not even need a reason.
My family used to live in a community that practised a mix of Buddhism and Taoism, which was what my father and the rest of the family members embraced as well. Every few months or so, there would be occasions where roast pork, roast duck and home-cooked dishes were proffered at temples or at the home altar in commemoration of one event or another. These we would later eat together with our meals after the prayers.
As my father’s engineering consultancy thrived, so did the food portions offered in prayer. There was always more than enough to leave the family and guests fully stuffed many times over. At the end of the day, the large refrigerator would be bursting at its seams as every available nook would be crammed with leftovers.
It would appear to be extravagant and wasteful to prepare more than we could possibly eat. But we were very thrifty when it came to food. No leftovers in our family have ever gone to waste.
We were taught to never waste whatever was served on the dining table. Not even a morsel of rice should be left on the plate when we were done with our meals.
The bony parts of the roast pork and duck that were usually discarded were the most treasured bits. Even the mongrels we kept as pets under the porch would never get to enjoy the pork bones which they loved to nibble on.
On the day after the feast, the kitchen would be abuzz with activities again as the womenfolk would be busy preparing a dish that was more yearned for than all the delicious food we had savoured the day before. The biggest enamel pot in the kitchen would be taken out and placed over the charcoal stove.
The bones would be simmered slowly in a stew of tamarind juice, dried chillies, onions, carrots, peppercorns, tomatoes and pickled plums to make a taste that is flavoursome and appetising at the same time, not to mention spicy from all the spices added. The leftover food was then thrown in together with an extra roast pig trotter or two for the meat and to enhance the taste.
Chinese mustard would be the last to be added to ensure that it did not become too soft. This vegetable is an important ingredient. Cooking sometimes had to be delayed for several days when there was a shortage in the market, especially during the rainy season.
Called kiam chai boey, this was the stew I grew up eating and grew to love. Literally translated from Hokkien, it means salted vegetables and leftovers. The ingredients may sound disgusting. That is why it can never be found on the menu of respectable Chinese restaurants. Who in their right frame of mind would serve or order something made from leftover food in these establishments?
No two kiam chai boey are the same. Every family has their own recipe. The leftovers and spices could be different too. The kind of festival or feast also plays a part. For example, the taste of one cooked with ingredients mostly from steamboat would be markedly different from one cooked with stir-fried ingredients.
In my younger days, I could eat two full plates of rice with just the kiam chai boey for lunch and another two plates for dinner. I would pile the vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and really tender meat from the trotter and enjoy it with some soy sauce. That was how much I loved it.
It is a wonder my wife Wuan loves this dish as much too. Whenever she makes this stew, we would cook extra rice to go with it. Since we seldom celebrate at home, preferring to eat out on special occasions, there are no leftovers. All of the ingredients used are bought fresh from the market. In that sense, our kiam chai boey is not cooked with leftover food.
Of course, it does not taste exactly the same as those that I remember but as Wuan is generous with the ingredients like roast pork trotter, the stew is equally mouth-watering with the same degree of piquancy that I love. I have no complaints. It is as good as it can get considering the limitations.
Lucky me she cooked a potful of it last Saturday. I was hankering for some. The stars must have been in perfect alignment. There was roast pork in the freezer. Chinese mustard was plentiful in the market. I am ashamed to admit I ate more than I should or could. It was absolutely sinful but my appetite was well satiated. The kiam chai boey, despite what goes into cooking it, is one stew I will always enjoy.
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