The Lunar New Year was a sombre affair in this household this year. My grandmother, whom I called Ahu, passed away at the age of 93. But really, when I say sombre,I mean that in the most fleeting way. Yes, we were saddened by her passing and we mourned for our loss. But that was exactly it, it was OUR loss which we mourned. Because, when you look at the life she had and thought about the person she was, the only right thing to do was to celebrate her. So when I couldn’t make it back for her funeral, I decided I would at least cook her favourite dish and dedicate a post to her.
However, this has proved to be a difficult post to write and I have been struggling with it for the last 10 days. There is so much I want to tell you about my grandmother but I could not find a way to piece it all together coherently, so please bear with me. I figured I’d simply share some of the memories I have of her:
We used to live with her when I was really little, up till I was five. I remember some nights we would lie in bed with her and she would let us play with her…….erm……. for lack of a better word, arm flab till we fell asleep. Most women would be like “Argh!! Don’t look at my flabby fat arms!!” and get extremely insecure, but not Ahu. She was just epic.
One time, she was visiting us in Singapore. And back then, we were living with my other grandmother who speaks an entirely different dialect. So in effect, my two grandmothers could not understand each other. You’d think it’d be an awkward meeting but nooooo. They chatted for hours that afternoon! Don’t ask me how. I’m still baffled.
I’m sad to say that I don’t have many stories of her. My memories of her are literally images of her doing random things. But it’s quite nice like that. Every time I think about her, it’s like I’m going through a photo album in my head. I remember her sitting in the kitchen with her friends and sisters (at least I think they were her sisters) rolling glutinous rice balls. I remember her lying with me in bed and laughing with me under the covers. I remember her calling my brothers “马骝仔” (little monkey in cantonese) whenever they got up to their antics. And I remember how she would always say it with a smile and a chuckle.
Dear Ahu, thank you so much for being the amazing person you were. I know I didn’t see you enough when you were alive and I’m sorry for that. I’ll see you in heaven again and until then, thanks for all the wonderful memories. I love you.
After she passed, I realised that I had never cooked for her. Not even once. And that was a real shame. I didn’t even know what she liked to eat. So I asked my dad, hoping it would be something simple and achievable. I didn’t want the first thing I ever cooked for her to be an utter failure. It turns out that while her favourite food was not entirely difficult to make or unachievable, it was an intimidating one. To me anyway. It was Gu Chai Kueh, steamed garlic chive dumplings. Why is it an intimidating dish? Because it’s one of those traditional dishes that only your grandmother makes or available only at specialty stalls that have been passed down for 18 generations. Even Ahu didn’t make it herself. But my other grandmother does. So I called her for help. Ah Ma’s recipe was simple; less is more. But there was one ingredient I didn’t know where or how to find, so it was back to Google.
After much research, I found that there were two ways to make the skin. One with wheat starch and the other with rice flour. The former results in what we call a crystal skin which is translucent, while the latter was more opaque. For the life of me, I could not remember which kind it was that we used to buy. So I made both. And then there was the filling. Using Ah Ma’s recipe as a guide, I decided on this recipe.
So I did the shopping, I made the Kuehs and all in all, it wasn’t half bad. I think Ahu would have been proud. They weren’t exactly spot on but that was due to my lack of skills. I scaled the recipe down and might have used a pinch too much salt. And with garlic chives, that is all you need to ruin it. Ok, I’m being dramatic. It wasn’t ruined, but it could have been better. I do believe that this recipe is a good one and if I had stuck to it, it could have been perfect.
For this being my first time making Gu Chai Kueh, I have to say it was not too shabby. The hardest part was the wrapping. I’ve wrapped many dumplings in my day but this…….this made me want to throw it all out. I finally gave up and just made half moon dumplings. You know, the
lazy easy way. The funny part is that when I showed it to my dad on Skype, he got all excited and exclaimed “That’s exactly it! It looks exactly the same!” I couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride in myself and then secretly chuckle at the irony of how the “perfect dumplings” came about.
Ahu liked them steamed but these babies are also delicious if you pan-fry them after steaming. That was how I used to prefer it. Now I can’t decide. Give it a try and tell me which you prefer.
Gu Chai Kueh recipe here
Crystal skin recipe here.