If ham, cheese and guns cemented the relationship between Ching and my father, then I can most safely say that it was tikoy that sealed the bond between my mother and Gochang, Ching’s wife.
A few days before the Chinese lunar new year, Gochang would always turn up at our store with her yearly gift of a large box of tikoy, a very dense and heavy, gluey cake made from sticky rice flour, wheat, oil and sugar, the traditional offering to friends and family in the Chinese communities. They come in any sizes, but our family always got the large box of round tikoy, because Gochang knew and appreciated that we had a large family, and she only had one child, a son named Qiao, but called Chabeng.
Now tikoy is one of those delicacies that need to be tried to be appreciated, especially since it can be relatively easy and at the same time very fussy to cook owing to its consistency when heated. Although some recipes call for tikoy wedges to be dipped in beaten eggs and then fried in oil, the best way is to just fry it plain and enjoy its unadulterated taste. The problem is, because of its very gluey nature, fried tikoy on its own had been, at least in my family, the ruin of many a frying pan, especially when bits of it are left to dry on it, and which no amount of scrubbing or scouring can then dislodge.
The bottoms of tikoy had always, to me, seem to be covered in a suspiciously cellophane-looking lining, but we were informed that this was all part of the whole package, and so was always fried, cellophane and all, until crisp and golden brown on the outside and gooey and tongue-blistering hot on the inside. But no one suffered any ill-effects from the cellophane wrap afterwards, and we ate tikoy year after year, so I guess I was wrong about that after all.
Gochang and Ching were really more than neighbours to us; they were also our bank-cashier-next-door, where we could go any time of the day to exchange large peso bills for smaller ones to make change for customers. When a member of the family was too ill to eat solid food, they were also a reliable source for lugaw, rice porridge also called congee, which is a staple of many Chinese cuisines. Why we couldn’t have made our own I’ll never know, but I suppose it was easier to go next door and ask for some as we always knew it was already made. And we never heard a word of complaint from them, so good-natured and generous they always were.
I do remember Ching's grocery store very well, having been my mother’s regular errand boy during those years.
The store had dark wooden shelves piled top to bottom with all kinds of goods and sundries. At the very front of the store, hanging from a pole, are many sizes of wax candles, from regular foot-long tapers in white, yellow or red to short stubby white ones called balyenas. Right below them are bins of rice in different grades and quality, sold in salop, full or half dry measure, as well as other dried grains like green or yellow munggo, mung beans and also cracked corns. The shelves behind these bins are stacked with all kinds of canned goods: tinned sardines or pusit portola, those whole squids cooked in their own dark ink, corned beef and vienna sausages, Reno liver spreads, gisantes or canned peas. A little further into the store on the shelves along the same wall are found condiments and oils: the ubiquitous cooking oils like Baguio or Mayon in small round cans or larger gallon-sized tins, blocks of cooking lard, bottles of catsup either tomato or banana, pickles, mayonnaise and sandwich spread, Rufina patis, that fermented salty fish sauce and several brands of soy sauce, along with the staple of Filipino cooking of the time and which was sprinkled very generously to enhance flavour, Vetsin.
Right beside these are the processed cheeses either in tins or foil-wrapped cardboard boxes, jars of peanut butter and a whole array of canned milk, evaporated or condensed. With names like Carnation (which Nanay Ula always called Encarnacion, to the kids’ utter delight) or Dari Gold, and ultimately, the more expensive Bear Brand Natural Milk, which you always knew would be expensive because the label read “pasteurized real cow’s milk” and also because the tins came wrapped in a soft layer of parchment paper.
On the top two shelves along this wall reside cookies and crackers: big and small tins of Fita, MY San or SkyFlakes crackers, my favourite chocolate coated and individually foil-wrapped Fibisco and giant tins of assorted cream-filled cookies as well as a few boxes of Curly Tops, waxy chocolate candies or chocolate macaroons. The funny thing about these cookies was that in those days, hardly anyone bought them for home snacking, but were rather purchased as gifts for hospital visits, along with fruit and eggs. My mother got her fair share of these cookies, having had so many children during her childbearing years.
On the other side of the store are the shelves containing laundry and cleaning products: laundry detergents and laundry soap bars, plastic tubs of blue tina that makes whites whiter and gawgaw, cornstarch powder to give body and shape to clothes in the ironing process. A miscellany of other products takes up the rest of the space, from shampoos to bathing soaps and other grooming products. Cigarettes and other tobacco products take up much of the back wall, just behind the cash drawers, and this is the spot where Gochang and Ching are usually found.
“Ano gusto ikaw?”, Gochang would usually ask me in her rather stilted Tagalog whenever I approach her at the counter, knowing I was there for a change for large bills or else cigarettes for the adults, otherwise I would be at the counter right in front of whatever product I was sent to buy.
Later her elderly mother lived with them for a few months; the first time I caught a glimpse of her was she was walking down the street, or rather precariously inching her way back to their store, Gochang supporting her by her arms. After that she could always be found sitting on a short stool in front of the cash counter, for this wizened old lady with her tiny bound feet, a relic from a vanished time and a faraway place was unable to stand on her own.
© August 2007