Her most guarded secret for decades, my grandmother finally agreed to teach me her secret recipe just in time for this year’s Chinese New Year.
Every Chinese New Year, I look forward to eating my grandmother’s legendary abacus seeds dish.
Her abacus seeds, which are made out of yam, are neither too oily nor too dry. Stir-fried with my favourite shiitake mushrooms, they are savoury and springy. They are so good that I could never stop at just a few, and always ask for a second helping even when I am already full.
Given my grandmother’s culinary prowess, it is no surprise my whole family has a constant craving for this dish. However, though we tried it at different stores around Singapore, we were left disappointed as none of them lived up to my grandmother’s version.
To make matters worse, my grandmother hardly made the dish, given its tedious preparation, and also refused to teach anyone her secret recipe.
Then, my grandmother was hospitalised for a bad fall in Nov 2019. After a month’s stay in the hospital, she was discharged, but things were no longer the same.
My heart would break whenever she had difficulty getting up and going to the bathroom. In her condition, she could not even bear to stand up for long enough to cook simple dishes, much less spend two hours making abacus seeds.
One day, while we were having dinner at my grandparents’ place, my mother asked if my grandmother could teach her how to make the dish. As usual, my grandmother did not want to reveal her secret recipe.
As I had recently got closer to my grandparents by living with them around the time of the circuit breaker, I decided to try my luck and asked if she could teach me how to make the dish. To my surprise, she actually agreed and said I would have to make it for my future husband.
Getting married is a long way away off for me, but I was quick to seize the rare opportunity and immediately arranged a date and time to visit my grandparents again.
Although only my mother and I were supposed to learn it that day, my aunt and uncle leveraged on my grandmother’s affection for me and soon we had a small crowd of relatives showing up for the lesson.
Not wanting to wait for us to begin, my grandmother had already prepared some of the dough when we arrived. We just needed to add some ingredients, including flour and salt, but being complete newbies, had no clue how much of the ingredients to add.
My grandmother then stepped in to throw in the ingredients randomly, saying it was all agak-agak (estimated), much to the struggle of my mother who was attempting to record the recipe for future reference.
Next, we had to knead the dough, which required more strength than kneading for baking. This step was especially stressful for me working under my grandmother’s watchful eye.
I kneaded the dough until my knuckles turned red, but when my grandmother entered the kitchen to watch, she still reproached me for not using enough strength.
She said that the abacus seeds would not taste good if I continued kneading that lightly, then promptly walked out of the kitchen, to the laughter of my family.
After, we rolled the dough into long tubes and cut them into slices. We used our thumbs and forefingers to create a depression in the middle, giving the seeds their iconic “abacus” shape.
It sounds simple enough, but this was the most time-consuming step since there were so many slices of dough to shape. My whole family was involved in this process, but I was already tired from standing for so long.
I could not fathom how my grandmother used to make these all by herself.
Finally, my grandmother boiled the abacus seeds and stir-fried them with minced meat and mushrooms. Our abacus seeds were complete!
Throughout the cooking process, my mother, aunt and uncle would reminisce about their childhoods and ask my grandmother if she remembered the antics that they got up to. I was glad to have this opportunity to talk to them about something other than my studies or my future.
I also felt closer to my grandmother, who I had always bonded with over food. Instead of my grandmother buying my favourite foods, she was now feeding me with her invaluable knowledge.
Making abacus seeds helped me feel more connected to my Hakka roots as well. As I only knew a few phrases in my native dialect Hakka, I was glad to be given the opportunity to discover more about my heritage.
And while I was excited to try the abacus seeds, I was even more excited to let my grandfather taste them.
He has heart problems and cannot stand for too long, so while we were making the abacus seeds in the kitchen, he could only watch us from the living room. Now, I was eagerly anticipating what he thought of the abacus seeds we had painstakingly made.
I finally knew why my grandmother would always pile my bowl with food, insist that I eat all the food she had cooked, and constantly ask whether her food was good.
I used to think my grandmother was just being naggy, but now I finally understood. When you’ve put so much time and effort into making something, you want to make sure your loved ones enjoy it.
Each time my grandfather ate the abacus seeds, I would ask him if he wanted more. I also frequently asked if the abacus seeds tasted good, to which he always replied that they did.
I suspected that he was lying for my sake, because I found my abacus seeds too chewy. But it didn’t matter that they didn’t taste exactly the same as my grandmother’s – they were still perfect to him.
Now that I have my grandmother’s recipe, I am surprised to learn that it did not contain some undisclosed ingredient. In fact, it was mostly similar to the ones I found online.
The only difference was the amount of effort she put into making the abacus seeds – while most online recipes took over an hour to make, my entire family spent two hours making the dish.
Perhaps the “secret ingredient” was just the amount of time, effort and familial love put in that always reflected in how good the dish tasted.
This Chinese New Year, my mother and I are planning to attempt the dish again, hopeful we can cook up something closer to grandmother’s version.
For all the years my grandparents spent looking after me and cooking for me with no complaints, I hope to perfect the dish and reciprocate their love for me.
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