Saturday, 12 April 2014

The nostalgic “chap chai”


I must admit that I do not know the origin of this dish but when I small young, I’ve heard it from the cook in my grandmother’s kitchen that this is very much a Hokkien fair. Some Hokkien call it “chap chai” which means “a mix of all dishes” and some call it “chai boey” which means “leftover dishes”. All my Hokkien friends know about this dish and professed their love for it but when I am in Fujian province in China, I asked around if they know this dish but the answer was negative, so I am convinced that this dish is invented in Nanyang. Later, when I started working in the Klang Valley, I heard the Cantonese call it “shun choy” which means “soury dish”
The pot of chap chai that mom prepared. 
Whatever that it is call, this dish along with a few others such as pig stomach soup with pepper, bak kian (fried minced meat with other minced vegetables carefully folded with a layer of oily pig skin), chili fish (pan fried mackerel fish stuffed with minced chili (sambal belacan)) and assam prawns are considered nostalgic to me and some of my cousins. It was the dish that we will always reminiscence.
No matter how well others try to do these few dishes, we will always think that the best is still those prepared in Chuan Joo Hin. Chuan Joo Hin is the name of the cigar and tobacco company that is that the core of my grandfather’s many other businesses.  Whenever we refer to that shophouse cum factory that also houses the family kitchen, we will just call it Chuan Joo Hin and it stuck till now eventhough that place is no longer in use.
I do not know what gets into my mom’s dish planning and cooking for this weekend but I am very delighted that she prepared “chap chai” and the chili fish. For so many years after we no longer go to Chuan Joo Hin for lunch or dinner, mom never cook most of the dishes I mention above.  However, dad still thinks that mom’s cook cannot match those made in Chuan Joo Hin. Over dinner last night he kept saying “this fish doesn’t taste like those from Chuan Joo Hin” and “in Chuan Joo Hin they don’t it this way, you are wrong”.
And today, in my heart I am saying “the chap chai’s broth is not as thick as those we used to have in Chuan Joo Hin. Besides, it was cooked in a big claypot on charcoal for hours, left it for overnight and reboil again the next day.”
It takes a lot of effort to prepare a pot of chap chai but that pot can be the family dish for many meals and for many days. Chap chai is made of leftover food, especially meat, from the past few days accumulated. It is then all dumped into a big pot added with ……………err….I must confess again that I don’t know the full ingredients other than dried chili, ginger, some stuffs to make it sourly and salted vegetables. I’m only good at tasting and eating. Duh!!
The chap chai that mom cooked for my dinner and lunch today is the first homemade one that I’ve ever tasted in years; 4 at least. As a child and later through my secondary school all the way before I left home for Auckland, whenever I have cravings for it, I will tell my grandmother and in a few days’ time, I know it will have it. Otherwise we will sure get this dish after some important dates such as Chinese New Year, grandparent’s birthday, after prayers to ancestors such a Ching Ming, their death anniversaries, the seventh month in the lunar calendar or after my elder cousin’s wedding because these are the dates that many leftover food can be collected to make a good pot of chap chai.
With this dish alone and rice, I can fill up my stomach happily for many meals and days on end. Chap chai is a food that brings many nostalgia to me especially my childhood and part of my teenage years relating to eating in Chuan Joo Hin, cousins and my grandfather.


P/S: Sorry to my Muslim friends, this dish is not Halal. 

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