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WIP [your spice is my ink]

Your spice paste is my Chinese ink

[Lu mia rempah sama gua mia bak]


“Tumbok lah!” [“Pound!”] my mother exclaimed as she watched me struggling with the mortar and pestle. I was twelve years old. I remembered that each piece of ginger was the size equivalent to a third of my palm, and one of those ginger pieces was more orangey in colour and much tougher than the regular ones. There were onions, a few cloves of garlic, some seeds which curiously came with thick shells. I could not recognise half of what my mother put into the mortar and pestle before she commanded me to start pounding them. My first hit was weak, nothing happened. I tried repeatedly to bruise the ingredients but with little success. I got the hang of it after a while as I saw the ginger splitting slightly and the onions denting and oozing. All I could smell was the pungency of the onions and needlessly to say, tears began streaming down my cheeks and all movements came to a halt. My mother could not help it but laugh at the situation, which made me more persistent and so I carried on. It was difficult getting the ingredients to stay within the container, and I had to pound slowly and from an oblique angle, which obviously defeated the purpose. The ingredients started sliding and shooting out from the mortar. I was glad I was not using the grinding stone slab [batu giling] which would obviously create more mess. “What happened? Keep the ingredients in the bowl!” my mother exclaimed. “I cannot. The batu is not big enough”, I protested. At this stage, while I was preoccupied with all that wincing, tearing and sniffing, I felt a hand over mine, and me losing grip of my pounder to the hand. Still struggling to open my eyes and keep them open, I saw my mother taking over the task. With firm, repetitive and well-paced pounding, she seemed to have flattened the ingredients and managed to toss them around in the stone bowl. She then proceeded to push them against the wall of the bowl with rotating motions, which effectively shredded the fibrous  roots and even the membranes of the onions. The shells of the seeds had not only cracked opened, but their skins became wet with the juice of the onions, which made it easy to remove them from the bowl. Then with skilfully swift motions of rubbing, grinding forward and backward as though stirring soup in the pot, a dark orange paste is formed in the bowl. In view of the many complaints from her neighbour living in the flat below hers, I often wondered why my mother was still using the mortar and pestle so regularly. It was not really an issue when we lived in our old flats at Bedok (a town in Singapore), where my mother was more familiar with the habits of her old neighbours, and many of them would chat with her about cooking and recipes. Since the complaints however, she had been placing layers of cloth or newspaper between the mortar and the floor, using them as muffler. To this day, I must say that the long process of preparing the ingredients sometimes put me off cooking Peranakan dishes. Ironically though, it was the batu mortar and pestle which made me feel a little more Peranakan. There was an incident a few years back at a Peranakan club event. The mortar and pestle were mentioned, and one of my Peranakan friends brought up a superstition connected to the object. She shared about a family belief that the mortar and pestle should never be separated as they might cry for each other at night as the two parts of the object represents a mother and her child. In defiance, she did the opposite of what she was told not to do by her mother, that was to separate the mortar and pestle. She proudly proclaimed that nothing bad came out of it. I was surprised to hear this from someone outside my family. I recalled that after being told the story by my mother at a very young age, I would regularly check on the mortar and pestle at the corner of the kitchen just to make sure that the two parts were kept together.

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