Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Growing up in Borneo-food

Food memories. We ate things that I'm not even going to mention here. We were always hungry, we have breakfasts, lunches and dinners but no snacks. So it's mostly in between mealtimes that we were hungry. The neighborhood kids were ingenious, they knew how to forage for food; we followed; we didn't do it for fun; it was serious, to stave off hunger. Today people still forage for food in Europe, its more like a gourmet thing to do; looking for weeds, wild herbs, mushrooms and truffles. We foraged for fern heads, mushrooms and wood ears. Living at the edge of a rubber plantation offers lots of opportunities for foraging. Mushrooms and wood ears can be found on damp fallen tree trunks. The wild ferns grow like gangbusters in the tropics. Sauteed mushrooms, wood ears and fern heads tastes wonderful. Nowadays you can't even pay to get fern heads.
We would shoot pigeons and sparrows with a slingshot, pick off their feathers and roast them over wood fire; they tasted so Good.
After school, we would run wild in the jungle, amusing ourselves and look for whatever can be eaten- guavas, green mangoes, the neighbor's oranges. Pineapples grew in our front yard. We ate them so fast, they didn't have time to replenish themselves and they disappeared.
The village was one big extended family and safe for us kids. We were never molested. It was a very primitive time, money was scarce. We raised ducks for eggs and meat. These were free range ducks and when braised with a black bean sauce, they taste like heaven. We ate a lot of fish, it was cheap, we lived near the sea. We never complained.'What, fish, again?' was never in our vocabulary. Having ducks in the yard attracted all kinds of predators- iguanas and cobras. I remember a cobra came calling one day but ended up on the dinner menu. My uncle had a pet pig once, we played with it when it was little. When it grew too big, he became dinner.
These and many other stories are still being told at family gatherings today, being passed on to the next generation.
My grandparents lived with us. Grandma did most of the cooking. T drink coffee, we had to roast our own beans. We bought raw beans from the store, roast them in a wok, it is stirred constantly till they turned brown. Grandma was the only one who could tell when the beans are ready. As kids we would stir the beans and she'd come and check. Then she would set up the grinder and we had the chore of grinding the coffee beans. It is, to this day, the best coffee. A pot was brewed in the morning and another at 4 pm in an aluminium pot. For those pre-dinner hunger pangs, we poured left over coffee onto rice left over from lunch and ate that. It is the most disgusting thing.
Grandma cooked everything. I remember her steamed buns that we ate for breakfast, she kept some yeast starter in the larder, every night she made a batch of dough, prove it overnight, save some as starter for the next batch, made the buns with a peanut filling in the morning. We had that for breakfast most mornings.
In my early years we had a wood burning stove, the kitchen as always smoky and black from the soot. It was later that we used butane gas from a portable tank. We had to help gather firewood. For my early years, we had no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Till today, I don't go camping or trekking. I've come a long way from those primitive years.
I remember the free food from the US government, the free powdered milk and the free cheese. That was our only source of dairy, we loved it.
I remember the 'midnight feasts'. My dad was a gambler and would come late from the gambling den. When he wins, he brings home fried noodles,'chow mien' . He would wake us up at midnight and we would eat and then go back to sleep. A midnight feast in fat America is unheard of.
I will always cherish these and many memories of my childhood. I'm grateful for these memories.

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