Simple Life, Simple Food

I grew up in one of those pre-war four-storey tenement buildings on Tang Lung Street at the junction of Wanchai and Causeway Bay, a relatively poor neighborhood. My family of ten (including my parents, two siblings and myself, two celibate unemployed uncles, a grandma and two long-time dependants who volunteered as domestic helpers) lived in a two-bedroom-turned-four-plus-attic unit on the fourth floor. Compared to other households in those buildings, which normally housed three to four families in one unit, we were considered the better off type.

What happened in that household during my eighteen years of childhood and adolescent life there may well make good ingredients for a novel. But to give a hint of the living conditions and the less-than-happy mood, I’ll just say that my mother and the three young kids had to put up with living a cramped life in the small 8’ x 10’ attic, just to escape the daily mayhem of quarrels between my grandma and her three unfilial sons. For now, I had better return to what this post is about, i.e. the good old home-made food that was simple and chemical-free and which I miss so much.

Tang Lung Street was (still is) nestled between Russell Street (where Time Square now stands) on the south and Hennessy Road on the north. The building that we used to live in was on the south side of Tang Lung Street, backing onto Russell Sreet. My grandma’s bedroom was on the south side of the unit and had windows looking over Russell Street. The living/dining room was on the north side opening out to a verandah that faced an opposite row of old tenement buildings on Tang Lung Street. Watching the goings-on with families across the street used to be the main entertaining program for us kids in those days without TV. Yet there was no lack of touching human stories to teach us to appreciate what we had, to be compassionate for the less fortunate and to enrich our understanding of life and its vicissitudes.

In those days, Russell Street was known for its cluster of cooked food stalls (大排檔). One specialized in sweet soups (糖水), one in stir-fried noodles and rice noodles, one in a variety of congee, one in Hong Kong-style coffee and tea and thick-sliced toasts and others whose specialties I cannot recall.

As today’s kids probably cannot imagine: having a house telephone was pretty much a luxury back then. We didn’t have one installed until I was well into my teens. So, before that happened, how on earth had it been possible to order take-outs from one of those food stalls? Ah Fa (one of the dependants) who was a few years my senior, had a brilliant idea – she would write the order and our address on a piece of paper and would wrap it round an object and fasten it with a rubber band. Then she would whistle to get the attention of the owner of the food stall that was nearest to our building (the sweet soup stall). When the owner responded and came over, she would shout “We want to order sweet soups” and would throw the “order” out to him. The first few times, our orders would always be sweet soups, but after a while, that owner was happy to pass on our orders for food from his neighboring stalls.

There was such a variety of sweet soups, which were all delicious. They had red bean soup 紅豆粥, mung bean soup 綠豆粥, sticky rice and barley soup 糯米麥粥, ground almond pudding 杏仁糊, ground sesame pudding 芝麻糊, lotus seed and lily bulb soup 蓮子百合糖水 and snow fungus soup 雪耳糖水. Invariably, fresh or dried ingredients with no processing and organic cane sugar were used in these delectable, no-additive afternoon or late-night snacks.

When I became a teenager, my favorite afternoon snack was red bean rice-flour cakes sold by a street vendor. Like any teenager who came home after school, I was always hungry when I got home from school after a fifteen-minute walk and climbing three long flights of stairs. The street vendor used to carry his home-made steaming hot red bean cakes (砵仔糕) in a big wooden bucket with lid and insulated with thick white cloth. Sweetened rice-flour batter had been individually placed in small bowls and steamed in a steamer and then placed into the bucket. When someone wanted to buy, the vendor would use two pieces of bamboo stick to lift and hold the cake. One had four choices: the brown sugar one with no red beans, the brown sugar one with red beans, the white sugar one with no red beans and the white sugar one with red beans. As soon as I threw down my school bag and changed out of my school uniform, I would dash out to the verandah to see if the vendor had come yet. When I heard his holler, I would hop down the stairs to greet him. My favorite was the brown sugar one with red beans and it was a great treat for me. The cost: 5 cents (HK$)!

As for our everyday meals, the main staple was rice, which was usually accompanied by three or four vegetable-based dishes and a vegetable soup – not particularly abundant when these had to be shared among six to seven adults and three kids. The most popular dishes that I can recall were stir fried choi sum with a few slices of beef, bean curd with soy sauce, steamed eggs with minced pork, stir fried bean sprouts with chives and mushrooms, pan-fried potato cubes, pan-fried omelettes with chopped green beans and occasionally steamed fish. It was simple, natural, unprocessed and inexpensive food, but healthy food. On weekends, to break the monotony, congee and stir-fried noodles with bean sprouts were usually served. Somehow the cooks in my family (my mother and Sam Tse, the older dependant) always managed between them to churn out meals very pleasing to the palate despite a very tight budget.

There is perhaps nothing that can stop the huge wheels of time from rolling forward. But in times of uncertainty and deep anxiety about the future, it may be the right moment to pause in our tracks and remind ourselves and our children that simple is beautiful, both of life and food – we don’t need excessive material possessions, and, least of all, toxic additives in our food.