Childhood comfort foods

Egg and soldiers eaten from an egg cup
Sitting around a tiny table to indulge in cream cakes and coffee, the conversation with my friends suddenly turned to comfort food.  As we shared our memories, it was both poignant and nostalgic to recall familiar foods that we grew up with at home and in school.  Compared to the rich cakes in front of us that were fast disappearing, it was interesting to discover that our comfort foods are both simple and satisfying.

Our parents seem to have a similar opinion about eggs for breakfast because half-boiled, hard-boiled or fried, eggs were a staple in our breakfast.  Maybe it was the English colonial influence but it was eggs for breakfast on every school-day.  I remember those egg and soldiers – sticks of buttered toast dipped into gooey egg-yolks – and this meal always kept my stomach warm until break time.

Another simple but super recipe is buttered toast topped with a sprinkling of sugar.  Mum would cut the bread slice into bite-size squares and it always persuaded me to east faster.  To this day, I can remember how the sugar granules would crunch with every sweet bite and melt delightfully in my mouth. 

As kids, my cousins and I helped with special chores around the house at Jalan Ngee Heng and Ah Kong or grandpa would reward us with RM0.05 sen each, a princely sum at that time.  On hot afternoons, we would choose the largest dinner plate from granny’s cupboard to buy ice-kacang from the shop that was our immediate neighbour.  For only RM0.05, the friendly shopkeeper would dish a generous scoop of boiled red beans on the plate before heaping on shaved ice and drizzle rose syrup, gula melaka and generous swirls of evaporated milk on this refreshing icy mountain!

The shopkeeper was so generous out of sheer goodwill because the standard size of his ice-kacang plate was only one third of the size of our dinner plate!  It never occurred to me that we were taking unfair advantage of the kindly shopkeeper but I only knew that I thoroughly enjoyed this thirst-quencher and often ended up with numb lips and brain-freeze!

One of my favourite days is when granny made seri kaya, a traditional egg and coconut bread-spread.  I would help to whisk the ingredients into a smooth blend and watch gran gently stir the mixture as it bubbled and boiled.  She would add a knot of fragrant pandan leaves in the final simmer but the best part of the whole process was when the kaya was cooled and packed into storage bottles because I would volunteer to help lick off any remnants from the wooden spoon and pan before they are washed!

The memory of gran’s homemade kaya remains fondly with me because it was created with the freshest ingredients, cooked to perfection without any preservatives and with lots of love.  For breakfast her kaya was spread generously on toast and on Jacob’s cream crackers for afternoon tea.  These plain soda-baked square biscuits, commonly called soda biscuits or “saw tah piah” in colloquial Chinese, just taste wonderful with gran’s kaya.

Speaking of spreads, my friends and I agree that one of the most memorable snacks from our school canteen must be the slices of turnip spread with prawn paste and a sprinkling of a blend of crushed roasted peanuts and sugar.  When the enterprising canteen stall-holder realised that this was such a popular snack among us girls, we noticed that the slices of turnip got thinner and thinner.  I guess this was where we acquired our taste for rojak because today it’s the closest flavour we can get that’s reminiscent of those expensive slices of tasty turnip.

Belly-button biscuits topped with sugar icing
My friends admitted that all of us enjoyed belly-button biscuits which came in two varieties – plain without any topping or topped with a dollop of icing sugar.  Kids being partial to anything sweet preferred the one topped with icing sugar and some of us even confessed to being choosy about the colours and eating in order of colours. 

If American kids have a method to eating Oreos, Malaysian kids also have our method to eating belly-button biscuits: First snap off the sugar topping and set it aside, eat the biscuit and then slowly savour the sweet chunk of sugar – saving the favourite colour for last!

This modern generation would hardly hanker for belly-button biscuits because we are spoilt for choice from a wide variety of new, local and imported cookies and biscuits. 

Crispy cream crackers
While our grown-up tastes may have changed, some of the savoury range of familiar biscuits like crispy cream crackers and lightly salted round Ritz biscuits are still all-time favourites.  As we exchanged snippets on where to find familiar flavours today, I had to cut in with a recent incident that’s linked to our chat about comfort foods.

Recently on his way home, my brother stopped at a supermarket to pick up some essentials like milk and bread and since there was a promo pack, he also bought Jacob’s cream crackers.  Then he sent a text message to his wife informing her about his shopping which said: “Bought milk, bread and saw tah piah.” 

When my brother received her quick reply, he roared with laughter because she texted: “Who’s tah piah?”  She didn’t figure out this colloquialism and thought her husband saw someone, so to this day she’s still being teased about her gaffe!

A version of this article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in April 2010

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