Tiffinful of memories


An ordinary enamel food container reminds a son of family unity and love.

IT is a tiffin carrier,” I tell my then four-year-old son when I notice him looking inquisitively at the four-tier food container which I have just brought out together with some other collectibles from the cupboard. We are in the midst of spring-cleaning for the Lunar New Year.

“What is it used for?” Terry asks as he watches me removing each chipped enamel container from the handle.

I tell him it can store various types of food at one time. It belongs to my family and I have been keeping it ever since I moved to Kuala Lumpur to work in the early 80s.

But for me, it is more than a food carrier. It is my family “heirloom”, so to speak, because it holds many fond memories of the good old days when we lived in Muar.

I can still remember the day dad brought home the white enamel tiffin set with ornate floral designs on it. He told us he had bought it from one of the grocery shops at Jalan Maharani, opposite the old wet market near the Muar River.

Back in those days, most families owned at least one tiffin carrier. What was unique about ours was that it became a part of our daily activities.

Dad carried home-cooked food in it when he went to work in his fruit orchard during the day. We used the four containers and the lid to lay out mum’s home-cooked dishes for our dinner. Even though we had ample bowls and plates, dad insisted that we should use the tiffin carrier each time we had our meals together.

Mum would place the four containers, plus the lid, with warm food and piping hot soup right in the middle of our marble table. We could only eat dinner together as dad worked in the orchard during the day.

It became our family tradition to use the tiffin carrier whenever we ate together. After washing up, mum would wipe the containers thoroughly dry, loop them back into the handle and place the set on top of the wooden food cabinet.

Thinking back, it was not so much the food but the tiffin carrier which made meals special for our family. Our parents reminded us of the saying that the family that eats together stays together. They added that we should always be close to one another, be thankful for what we have and appreciate the warmth in our home.

As dad pointed out, our family should be like the tiffin carrier – the four containers and lid are always together, to keep the food clean and warm. Unknown to us kids then, it represented the bonding of our family.

I have many happy memories of this special heirloom: we used it to take food to my mother at the Muar District Hospital when she gave birth to my two younger sisters. It “accompanied” us on picnics during school holidays and we used it to carry fruits like rambutan, duku and seeds of durian from dad’s orchard during the fruit season.

Once, mum used the four containers to store extra sugar when there was a shortage back in the early 70s.

Come every major celebration – like the winter solstice, mid-autumn festival, and even on any of our birthdays – mum would fill the containers to the brim with special dishes for the occasion. And, of course, during every reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s eve, the tiffin carrier was there, a symbol of unity in our family.

These days, whenever my brothers or sisters come to visit me, I will bring out the set as we have meals together. The sight of this ordinary-looking utensil instantly evokes nostalgic memories of our childhood and we’ll end up chatting and laughing about the days of fun, mischief and mishaps. Even though our parents are no longer with us, we enjoy remembering and talking about them as if they are still around, just like our enamel tiffin carrier.

For this year’s reunion dinner, my wife will use the set to lay out the food in the middle of the dining table. And throughout the Chinese New Year, I will use it for display, together with Mandarin oranges, kuih bakul (ti kuih) and angpow packets, to remind me of those sweet and wonderful bygone years.

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