When I was young, I used to watch in amazement as my grandmother pounded her concoction of traditional Peranakan/Hokkien spices in this grey mortar. The sound of the mortar was rhythmic and the smell of the blend of the spices was something out of this world. My grandmother will patiently squat and pound the spices for a very long time. Next came, the frying of spices. I saw this being repeated so many times in my life. Me intently watching my grandmother, hoping that I can steal some of her food. Or me lying down in my bed daydreaming and inhaling the smell of spices. Sometimes, I fell asleep and woke up with a coughing fit because my grandmother was happily frying the spices - yes, it was THAT potent. Today, whenever I smell a particular blend of spices, I am reminded of my childhood and am immediately transported back to time.
I never recalled my grandmother using a blender in her entire life. She insisted on pounding her spices and when we lived in an apartment, she literally used sheets of newspapers as a base to pound her mortar - a feeble attempt to prevent neighbors from complaining about the pounding noise. She claimed that pounding breaks down the spices gently and as such, food will taste much better. She finds that the blender tends to cut the spices too thin and smooth. My grandmother was indeed a fantastic cook. To this day, memories of certain smells will trigger my memories of her and her delightful array of Peranakan food. My mother, I would say, can cook pretty well. But it can never come close to my grandmother's cooking - part of it is just the smell is different, even though the food is same.
Years later, I remember flying back from graduate school in Vancouver to attend my grandmother's wake. It was surreal looking at her unresponsive body - still, she had a beautiful face. To me, my grandmother was an elegant and beautiful woman. My family hired two kitchen chefs to cook a storm and as a thank you gesture to family, neighbors and friends who attended her wake. Apparently, my grandmother gave explicit instructions years ago that we have to serve good quality food even at her funeral. I guess Mama was saying "I want to share my life with you. Food is a gift of hospitality. Thank you for coming". Till this day, I find myself saying the words "Thank You" instead of the casual thanks. I guess it must be my Mama's influence. So, thank you Mama for the memories - the smell of the food of our people, your patience and love manifested in your culinary skills and your attempt to pass down our heritage. I love you.
|My mama when she was young. She looked so stately.|