For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore.
O is for Orh Nee 潮式芋泥
Mei always had food on her mind. Even at the most inconvenient of moments like this one, knee-deep in clay-like mud. The gloop sucked at her bare feet, as if trying to draw her down, pull her deep down underground. She almost wished it would, at least it would explain how her wedding ring was somewhere underneath it all. Her hands fished around in the warm grey mud. She knew it was hopeless. But was she talking about her bid to find her ring or her marriage itself?
As she took a break to straighten her aching back and stretch her arms up and back, the dripping grey gloop brought to mind the last time she had her late grandmother’s orhnee or taro paste.
Mei’s cousin had recently gotten married – on an empty windswept beach in Oregon. She had attended the wedding, one of the few relatives to do so. It had been a party of only about 25, most of whom were the bride’s family from Oregon. They had shivered on the beach, the wind strewing petals from the bride’s bouquet, her veil billowing around her dramatically as the sun began to set. It was quite unforgettable and Mei later had had to recount the ceremony for all the many Singapore relatives who had not made it halfway across the world, and several times for her grandmother who adored weddings, who always attended them although she needed help walking and couldn’t sit upright for long anymore.
Grandmother insisted on a celebration for the newlyweds when they visited Singapore, even though they had requested for just the tea ceremony to honour their elders. The family had catered some Teochew food for lunch but Grandmother had made orhnee as well. The purple-grey steamed and mashed taro paste was studded with gingko nuts and topped with bright pumpkin puree. It was a Teochew wedding tradition and she had wanted to make sure her grandson’s new wife tried it. Thankfully the bride had bravely tasted some of this foreign dessert, declared it was the best thing she had eaten so far in Singapore, and finished the whole bowl.
Mei had secretly been jealous of the happy couple. Of their youth and their bright eyes and their big smiles. Of the way they looked at each other, knowing that they had found the right one, their other half.
She had been tired of dating and searching and looking, of speed dating, of blind dating, of Tinder dating, and especially tired of the usual pitying looks from the relatives she saw each Chinese New Year because she was still single. Perhaps that was why she had jumped into her marriage with Mr Not-Right.
Grandmother had been too frail by then to make the orhnee for her wedding and they made do with the not-right hotel version. She wasn’t able to attend the tea ceremony at the hotel so Mei and Mr Not-Right held a tea ceremony just for Grandmother at her home. Mei wondered now if these were all signs she should have heeded.
Mei wished she could be eating Grandmother’s orhnee right now, instead of digging in orhnee-like gloop. What was she doing here? How did it all come to this?
An argument. An argument so bad that it made her storm out of the house, take a taxi to this place and fling her wedding ring in the grey mud. A fight that was months in the making, a slowly steaming mess of a marriage that should never have been made in the first place. She felt as bogged down as the mud she was standing in. She didn’t know what she was doing anymore. First she was flinging her wedding ring away, then she was dragging herself through the mud, in a desperate bid to get the ring back.
Why was being an adult so hard? Why couldn’t she go back to the carefree days of childhood when all that mattered was her toys, her books, her sneaking into the kitchen to snatch a forbidden bite of Grandmother’s orhnee?
She waded back onto dry land, sat down and stared at her mud-caked hands. They felt lighter and freer now, no longer bogged down by the wedding ring she didn’t want.
And what she did want, for now at least, was a bowl of orhnee.
Orhnee is one of my very favourite desserts. It is rich and warm and comforting. Unfortunately it isn’t the easiest of Chinese desserts to find and you may have to search for Teochew restaurants in Singapore that serve them. I may have to try making it myself as there is no way to get it here in California. Here is a recipe.