Partial ingredients to a ground spice paste (rempah), commonly used in Nonya cooking in Singapore.
Text & Photo © JE Nilsson & CM Cordeiro 2020
“Suzie! Come in here! I want you to watch, we’re going to do the rempah for buah keluak so next time you know how to do for yourself!”
Susan’s mother, Li, waited for a response from her daughter. Not a sound from little Suzie. Li glanced sideways at her own mother, Cecilia, who already head a firm grip of hand on the batu lesung. Cecilia called the stone mortar and pestle tembok-tembok, so named because of the material, but also the empty hollow of the sound made when using the stone mortar and pestle. Once, a housing and development board (HDB) surveyor visited Cecilia in her newly built Queenstown 2-bedroom apartment. The train track ran just behind that block between Malaysia and Keppel Road Railway Station in Singapore . The surveyor wanted to know if Cecilia and family were doing well, and if it was overly disturbing with the noise whenever the train passed, “So Aunty, how is it you find living in this new block? Is the train very noisy and disturbing?” Li sat on the modest sofa in the tiny living room with her mother, translating into Baba Malay for Cecilia, the English questions posed by the surveyor. “Yah, whenever train pass, you can feel so strong kejung-kejung! kejung-kejung! But otherwise, this place nice la.” Cecilia replied. Li kept a straight face throughout the interview visit from the surveyor, but could not help but blurt in Suzie’s direction the minute the little girl was old enough to string two words together, “Your grandmother, don’t talk about her la. When you ask her about the train, you know what she said, the train goes kejung-kejung, kejung-kejung. Ah, that’s your grandmother for you.” At age two, Suzie’s wide eyes spanned the face of her mother. It was a beautiful face that Suzie had the privilege of peering at everyday.
Still waiting for Zeezee and looking annoyed, Cecilia said to Li, “Why Zeezie not coming? Anak kecik-kecik pun pantat chebok tak abis is it? I have no time you know, have to go home and feed my dog.” Finishing off other unvoiced comments from Cecilia, “Chilaka la Li, what kind of daughter did you bring up eh?”. Li, hearing no bouncing steps from Suzie along the hallway, instantly raised her, “SU-SAN CHIN CHEN-XI! COME INTO THE KITCHEN AT ONCE!”
“I’m here!” Suzie said peering out from behind the wall that led into the kitchen. Li pointed with her right hand index finger to the wooden stool that was beside Cecilia, “Come and sit here and watch your grandmother do this rempah. She has no time to waste, her dog is waiting at home.” Suzie climbed onto the wooden stool, and sat silent, observing.
The grandmother started piling all rough chopped ingredients into the tembok-tembok – serai, lengkuas, chili padi, a couple of buah keras to take away the heat from the chili padi, belachan, alia, kunyet, and more. She started pounding all of it into a fine pulp.
It seemed like hours before Suzie was allowed to move from the wooden stool and she was glad when her grandmother had packed her last bag with umbrella in hand, waving goodbye. “So we have some rempah now for our own dinner?” Suzie asked her mother, “No.” her mother replied under her breath, waving goodbye to Cecilia who was walking out the gate, “She took everything home for Auntie ee po and for grandpa. I will make ours now for dinner.” Li looked at her daughter, “You want to watch me do? You can help me do it this time.” Suzie didn’t quite feel up to it, but thought, what else did she have to do except finish her Enid Blyton “The Enchanged Wood” to see if the children get out of the spinning land up the Faraway Tree. “Okay.” she told her mother.
“So you like buah keluak right?” Li said. Handing over the pestle to Suzie, “Here, you do. Be careful don’t do so hard, otherwise, the chili will jump and get into your eye, you start crying wait.”
Suzie nodded and gripped the pestle with her tiny hand.
“You do now, so next time you don’t need me to teach you anymore. I will not be around forever.” Li said to her daughter.
“Grandma used so many ingredients, what’s the difference between buah keluak rempah and kuah rendang?”
“Rendang, you use assam, coconut milk and spices like cardamom, cloves, star anise. Use a bit of palm sugar to make it taste nicer.”
“And sayur lodeh?”
“Lodeh, you use the same here, what we are doing now.”
Suzie was confused, “But then, doesn’t it taste the same?”
“Yah, after a while you will see all this food, all the same la. You want different, you don’t add garlic, or you add lime leaves, or you use coconut milk. Sayur and meat also different taste, so depending what you add.”
“What if I don’t like kunyet?”
“Then use less.”
Suzie nodded and continued best she can, to crush the mix of vegetables into a pulp. Seeing the child struggle, Li took over the task from her daughter. “But if you are making food next time for Uncle KimKim and Uncle Poh, don’t tell them there’s onion in this rempah. They won’t eat it.”
“Why not? All rempah have onions right?” Suzie enquired.
“Because last time, they were naughty when young. Your grandmother tak boleh tahan, pound onion and chili and rub into their eyes and mouth! So today, they won’t eat if you tell them got onion and chili in it.”
Suzie looked at her mother, wide eyed and horrified.
“Yah, what you think? Your grandmother got 13 children what. Where got patience with all of them? You run outside the playground and don’t come back when they call you, they just take the heavy end of the metal scissors and kok you on your head!” Li said.
“They did that to you?” Suzie asked her mother.
“Yah, and then?” Li replied matter-of-fact, focusing on finishing the task at hand.
When the rempah was done. Suzie watched as her mother brought out the wok and set it over the gas-stove top. The chicken, readied and cleaned sat patiently in a bowl to the side of the wok.
“Okay, you watch me. Stand away from the wok over there, but watch. I don’t want you getting hot oil on yourself. This is going to splash some because the chicken got water.” said Li, pushing her daughter a good distance away from the warming oil and wok.
Suzie stood away from the wok, but looked on, observing.
Once the oil was heated sufficiently, Li carefully poured the rempah into the wok and stirred consistently. The gorgeous aroma of heated lemongrass and blue ginger filled the kitchen. It was beginning to smell like buah keluak even before the black nuts and chicken went into the pot!
Li noted the slight smile that crossed her daughter’s face. She loved cooking the favourite foods of her children. “Yah, good that you learning now.” Li said to Suzie. “You know grand aunty ee po?” Suzie nodded. “She was Mak Cho’s favourite daughter, so she was never let to cook. They considered cooking like servant job. Today, you see. She cook, everything also taste the same. Her sayur lodeh lontong, I don’t know how she do, so hard, you bite into it your teeth can crack.” Li smiled. “You are my daughter. I don’t want you to be like ee po next time. Okay?” Li now carefully poured the chicken into the wok and covered it with a lid.
“Okay.” Suzie continued to observe her mother by the wok.
Softening her tone of voice, Li turned to Suzie, “Okay, now you can go and read. Say half an hour and this will be ready. Come back to the kitchen then.” Li instructed Suzie.
Suzie nodded. She was looking forward to dinner that evening.
“And don’t forget to call your father to dinner later.”
 Yong, CY & Yeo, Z. (2016). Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Singapore Infopedia eresources. Retrieved 10 May 2020.