Sunday, 24 April 2011

Good to the Last!

It’s a funny thing…as adults, going to a wedding dinner is a chore; but when we were kids, going to a wedding dinner was fun. Maybe I was just plain greedy.

Remember the routine? Dressing up and combing your hair; meeting cousins, relatives and friends – people you haven’t seen in years; then waiting, and waiting, for dish after dish to appear on the table…

Certain dishes you only get to eat at a grand feast like a wedding. My particular favorites were the cold dish with crab-meat omelet and salad prawn, the shark’s fin soup, the roast suckling pig, and the steamed chicken with ham and kai lan.

The portions were big, well, at least they appeared big to a kid. After all, a wedding was a huge matter of face to Chinese; it would be unthinkable for your guests to go home with half-filled stomachs. Therefore food and drink flowed as abundantly as the wishes heaped upon the wedding couple. In fact it was common to have leftovers when each dish was cleared for the next course.

When dinner was over, close relatives and friends would linger a while to chat and catch up. A charming ritual then takes place. Boxes of leftovers, thoughtfully packed by the restaurant, would be brought out and offered to those who stayed behind. After pretending to noisily demur, the guests would happily bring the boxes home.

This practice may sound weird and unhygienic, but it was totally normal and acceptable. Like I said, things were simpler then. And you could never be sure what was in the box; chicken, duck, roast meat, prawns, and vegetables were all mixed in. In fact, so welcome were these leftovers, some restaurants even sold them to regular guests the following morning. They were known as choy giok (菜脚)in Cantonese or chai mui (菜尾) in Hokkien.

Every family has their own recipe for making something of the leftovers, but I liked my choy giok cooked with assam, mustard, chilli and bean paste. The dish tasted better as it “aged” -- the sourness of assam, the spiciness of chilli, and the earthy savoriness of bean paste mingling and slowly marinating in the pot day after day. And the bitterness of mustard leaves lending some freshness to the flavors.

For me, the greatest thrill of this dish is poking your chopsticks in and seeing what surprises await. As goes the Gump-ism: “Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know wad you’re gonna git”.

Choy Giok 菜脚

Oil                                          1 tbsp
Bean paste                           1 tbsp
Garlic                                     2 cloves, minced
Dried chillies                        5, soaked in warm water and chopped coarsely
Assorted roast meat            250 g
Salted vegetable                 50 g, optional, soak and wash thoroughly
Assam                                   2 tbsp, mixed with ½ cup of water, and strained
Water or stock                      1½  cups
Fried prawns                        100 g
Mustard leaves                    100 g
Salt and sugar                      to taste

1.    Saute bean paste, garlic and dried chillies over low heat. If necessary, add 1 tsp of water to prevent the paste from burning.
2.    Add assorted roast meat, salted vegetable, and fry for one minute over high heat.
3.    Simmer the meat with assam and water/stock for 5 minutes.
4.    Add prawns and mustard leaves, continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.
5.    Add salt and sugar to taste.

The dish tastes better overnight.

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