This post is inspired by this article on Foodbeast that floated my way through Facebook: 16 things that taste just like your Asian American childhood.
I browsed through it with glee, loving these kinds of walks down memory lane. Even if it wasn’t necessarily my memory lane.
Oddly enough, I encountered quite a few of the items in my adult life rather than my childhood.
I didn’t have my first Pocky stick, for example, till I was 27 years old. I was in Canada doing research for my PhD, visiting one my favourite Canadian authors, and she offered me a Pocky stick. It was the start of a long and fond relationship (for me and Pocky sticks, that is; the author’s pretty damn cool, too, it must be said).
Some of the food items did strike a chord, and reminded me of my Brisbane childhood, the trips to Fortitude Valley, and the evolving Asian grocery shops and malls through the 1980s and 1990s.
The items from the Foodbeast list that populated my childhood as well are: haw flakes, shrimp-flavoured chips, and pork floss (aka ‘pork sung’ in the Foodbeast listing). There were, however, many others that loomed large for our family. I’m not sure if they were unique to us, or whether they reflected a broader pattern of Malaysian-Chinese consumption.
1. Haw flakes: I ate these in 1cm stacks. Lots of 1cm stacks. My siblings, more often than not, couldn’t work out why I liked them so much. Haw flakes were everywhere in our childhood, always in the pantry, and I still can’t remember who used to buy them and bring them into the household because I don’t think either of my parents ate them. What is ‘haw’, you ask? Why, it’s the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree (I say, after having to look it up on Wikipedia).
2. Shrimp-flavoured chips: We loved these almost as much as we loved the boxes of iridescent yellow, chicken-flavoured Smiths’ chips (which we used to consume in appallingly large quantities).
3. Pork floss: My intrepid mother made pork floss from scratch once. Once. It took hours to reduce hunks of meat into the fluffy sweet-salty snack that we take for granted. It’s so widely available now, in giant jars and packets in the supermarkets. What used to be a ‘back home’ treat (when we returned to Malaysia or Singapore) was increasingly an item for the regular jaunt to the Valley (or Darra).
4. Fried dace: My mum used to fry up the fried dace (which is a preserved fish that comes in a can) in the wok until it was super-crispy. Coupled with jook, on a cold Brissie winter’s day, this was perfect. We usually ate the jook with preserved turnip (?) omelette, crunchy preserved choi, occasionally leftover bits of roast duck or pork, and often with a plate of peanuts drizzled with soysauce. I loved this blog entry about fried dace – the internet is made for precisely this kind of devotion.
5. Yeo’s Soyabean milk: This was a fabulous candy drink. Unlike the earnest and worthy soyabean milk that is stocked in major supermarkets today, Yeo’s soyabean milk proudly wore its sugary, diluted heart on its sleeve.
6. Salty plums: If you go into any Asian snack shop, you’ll find row upon row of differently preserved plums. Some are de-seeded portions, others whole; some flavoured with ginger or chilli, others purely drenched with salt and sugar. I used to favour the whole, pure ones and, after chewing off the dessicated outer layer, I’d suck the seed for hours and hours. That said, I used to eat a lot of them. I’m salivating just thinking about them.
One aunty tried to stop me eating them altogether by telling me that the plums were salted with the sweat of boys who were made to run around the factory. Surprisingly, I didn’t buy that one.
7. Bakkwa (sweet-salty pork jerky): We used to go mad for this when it wasn’t readily available in Australia. Every trip to Singapore or Malaysia was a mad dash to the first stall that sold these delectable sheets of pork. Just smelling the charcoal-finished squares was a heady pleasure in itself. These images of bakkwa are making me consider a stop at the snack-shop off Bourke Street…
8. Magnolia strawberry milk: This is a bit of a cheat as it wasn’t a drink that we had in Australia. It was my favourite drink when we were still in Malaysia. Magnolia milk came from a Singaporean dairy farm, and started its bottled milk range in the 1960s. It came in chilled, shaped glass bottles, and the milk was UHT-flavoured. I’m sad I can’t get it like that anymore.
9. Soft flour cake (aka ‘shaqima’ or ‘shat kek ma’): I always asked for this when we were in the Valley. They were chewy, soft, sweet, and incredibly more-ish. It’s hard to describe what they look like, so you should just see the packet of cakes for yourself. My mother just told me that a literal translation of ‘shat kek ma’ is “kill the horse you’re riding”. Hmmm.
10. Lolly gobble bliss bombs: We had boxes of this in the pantry. So very bad for you, but so hard to resist the crispy toffee-coated popcorn. Esp when there was a big, gorgeous snarl of toffee and very little popcorn…