Dad had heart problems by the time I was born. It was around that time that he got accredited as a supervising electrical engineer. Industries such as factories, hotels and cinemas were required by the National Electricity Board to engage the services of an engineer like him to inspect and submit a monthly report on the status their electrical installations.
Mum accompanied him on his rounds just to be sure he was all right. As most of the factories were off-bounds to unauthorised persons, Mum waited for him in the car outside the factory compound by the road shoulder. Some of these inspections took as long one 1 hour per installation. These factories were located mostly in the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone and the Mak Mandin Industrial Estate.
During the school holidays when I was in the primary school, they usually took me along. Dad went as far north as Chuping in Perlis to inspect the sugar factory there. Calling the sugar plantation huge is an understatement. Sugar cane dominated the landscape as far as our eyes could see. We had to travel a long time by car on a quiet road through the plantation to reach the factory. There was nothing to see except mile after mile of sugar canes on both sides of the road.
These trips with them left a deep impression in me as to how hard Dad, and for matter, Mum, had to work to put food on the table. He was already in his early-sixties by then. Most of these trips were boring as I had to wait with Mum outside the factories. Some were memorable nonetheless, like the inspection trips to a granite mine in Juru followed by another inspection at a knitting factory located in the midst of a rubber plantation in Nibong Tebal.
My favourite part of these trips were the time after we left Juru and before we reached the knitting factory. It would be midday when we pass by the town of Nibong Tebal. There was this eating place, located in a row of old shophouses on the right side of the road, that we usually stopped for lunch. According to Dad, it was operated by a distant relative, a great-granduncle, and was then taken over by his children and grandchildren.
Tables and chairs and decors in the shop were worn out and in desperate need of some sprucing up. A scent, neither off-putting nor pleasant, permeated throughout. Even the yellowed marble tabletop smelt of that. When we have settled down, Dad would to recite the order in Teochew to the waiter. Although I could not understand the dialect, I knew exactly what he was ordering. It was the same every time.
A pot of steaming hot tea was usually served first. It would come with a small plastic basin filled with tea cups and saucers. The ritual then began with Dad pouring the hot tea over the items in the basin. He would roll the tea cups in the basin one by one and then place them on the table. The cutleries and chopsticks were next. When all the washing were done, he would fill up the cups with the tea from the pot.
The chai kueh and koo chai kueh there were simply delicious. Both are steamed dumplings. Chai kueh has a filling of stir fried shredded sengkuang (yam bean) and dried shrimps while koo chai kueh comes with chives and dried shrimps done the same way. We ate them with chilli sauce. Little me could eat up to six chai kuehs at one go. The koo chai kuehs I ate less of as strips of chives tended to get stuck between my teeth.
Then there was the crab shell stuffed with minced crab meat, pork and coriander, and deep fried. I liked that too but could only eat one as it was greasy. Eating more would make me nauseous. The steamed pork ribs with black beans were tasty too but I was not fond of them. The meat would sometimes be too chewy to my liking. Dad and Mum seemed to enjoy them though.
Or nee (sweetened yam paste) served in a shallow bowl usually completed the meal. It did not look appetising, especially with a thin layer of lard floating on the top. This dish is a Teochew specialty and was not easily available anywhere else. It needed a lot of effort and time to prepare. Mashed yam is sweetened with sugar and slowly cooked in a kuali with pork lard. It has to be continually stirred to prevent the paste from sticking to the bottom and get burnt. This could take up to a couple of hours.
There is nothing quite like a spoonful of or nee with its aroma titillating the palate and its pasty texture swirling inside the mouth. Mum always stopped me from over-indulging this dish. She said that eating too much yam was bad for digestion. I have never gotten around to finding out if that is true yet.
On one of our trips to Penang recently, Wuan and I went to Nibong Tebal to look for the shop. I could not recognise the town. I could not even remember the name of the shop. So much has changed. We lost our way even with the GPS and had to drive around searching for road signs to lead us back to the North South Expressway. I wonder if the shop is still there. The last time I was there with Dad and Mum was more than thirty years ago. It would be great to eat there again and indulge in some or nee and chai kueh, just for old time’s sake.