#AtoZChallenge – T is for Tutu Kueh

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. 

T is for tutu kueh

There’s a kind of magic to kueh tutu. Unlike most snacks, manufactured in a factory far away, packaged in some crinkly plastic with garish colours, this one is made right in front of you. It is an art, a performance almost, of a tutu kueh seller. And Ling sometimes felt like she was on stage doing the dance of the tutu kueh.

Except her tutu wasn’t the floaty fairytale one that ballerinas wore. It was instead a delicate white steamed cake with an orange-red filling.

She would scoop the finely ground rice flour into the metal mould, leaving a slight indentation in the middle for the filling. Then depending on the customer’s preference, either some ground peanuts or coconut cooked with sugar was placed in the hollow. More finely ground flour on top to cover. Then the whole thing was overturned onto a square of muslin and onto the steamer. One two three, would fit nicely on one steamer.

The lid went back on the steamer and while it steamed, she would continue her little dance. A sprinkle of white, a centre of orange-red, another shower of white. Then onto the white cloth and into the steamer.

Her feet tapped away behind the cart. She had an internal soundtrack that repeated in her head whenever an order for tutu kueh came in. It had the right beat and the right rhythm for all her movements required to make the sweet treat. She swayed a little to the unheard beat when she completed her moves. Then stopped for a heartbeat, closed her eyes, then that was when she knew the steaming process was done and the kuehs were ready.

The tutu kueh tune had no words and not much of a melody either. Ling often didn’t feel like her life amounted to much but when a customer asked for an order of kueh tutu, it felt like a sparkle went through her and brought her to life, turned her into the Kueh Tutu Princess. When she handed over the sweet white flowers of cake, and received money in exchange, her brilliance faded and she went back to being just Ling again.

 

 

Kueh Tutu or Tutu Kueh is a traditional Singaporean snack. It used to be quite common when I was growing up in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t live in Singapore now but when I returned for visits, it’s not something that seems as common as before. Which is a pity as it is such a delicious treat. As a kid I always disdained the coconut version, much preferring the crunchy sweet peanut filling, so I don’t actually remember eating a coconut kueh tutu. A similar dessert is putu piring, which only has coconut filling, is shaped in a larger, flatter disc, and doesn’t use a flower mould.

Apparently it is known as ‘tutu’ because of the sound that the steamer made. Although I’ve never heard any kueh tutu steamer make that sound before!

Here is a recipe

Have you eaten a similar steamed sweet cake?

 

 

 

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#AtoZChallenge – S is for Sambal

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. 

 

S is for Sambal

Before Rebecca left for college in the United States, her mother insisted on teaching her how to make sambal.

“Mum, I think most mothers teach their kids to make simple one-dish meals like fried rice and noodles. Sambal is something I don’t need to learn. I’ve got so many other things to prepare. I can just bring a jar over there what.”

Her mother persisted.

Sambal was the building block of many dishes, she explained. Sambal, that is, a really good authentic sambal, is something that is impossible to find in supermarkets, even Asian supermarkets in the US. She told her daughter that when she was in England for her undergrad studies, the one thing she missed was a real proper sambal.

“You can buy chili sauce from the supermarket, but it’s different! So when I came home for a visit after my first year, I made sure to ask Ah-Ma for her recipe. And that is what I want to teach you.”

She promised that it wouldn’t take too long, that she would help with some of the packing later.

Of course Rebecca later learnt, that was a bit of a lie, as the sambal took over an hour to make.

But as she sat in her new dorm room some days later, a stranger in a strange land, she pulled out her smuggled-in jar of sambal, which was wrapped in several layers of newspaper, plastic bags and then stuffed into a ziplock bag. Her mother had written on the bag ‘a small jar made just for you, to get you started and give you a taste of home’. When she saw her mother’s almost calligraphic handwriting, tears welled up. She quickly blinked them away. How silly. Here she finally was, in an American college dorm, something she had dreamed about for years, and worked hard at school to achieve. And here she was sitting alone, not daring to leave her room, and clutching this gift from her mother. God, she was pathetic.

Her brand new roommate had gone out for dinner. Caitlin had asked her to come along to the dining hall but she feigned exhaustion from her long flight. And that was true, it was a long flight, made extra long with delays in Hong Kong because of a typhoon. She just wanted to shower and sleep. But as she looked again at the ziplocked jar she clutched in her hands, she also wanted very much to open it, and smell it, and taste it. Was that weird? To be tasting cold sambal from a jar? Oh well, she didn’t really care. She peeled all the layers off her precious cargo and gingerly eased open the lid. Oh it was heavenly. It smelled gloriously spicy, full of chilies and belachan, that stinky shrimp paste. There was a hint of sourness from the limes. She looked to make sure the door was closed – she didn’t want her new dorm-mates to think of her as the crazy Singaporean girl – then dipped her index finger into the sambal and licked it. It was everything that she needed at that exact moment. She hated that her mother was right, but it also made her realize that she missed her mother, now halfway across the world and many time zones away. She put the lid back on the jar, wrapped it back in all its layers, then tucked it back into her bag. She would call her mother to let her know she had safely arrived. And she would try not to cry when doing so.

Sambal is more or less a hot sauce. The term ‘sambal’ is Javanese in origin but it is a popular condiment not just in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia and Singapore. Its main ingredients are chilies and shrimp paste or belachan. Other ingredients may include garlic, ginger, shallot, palm sugar, lime juice. There are many different types of sambal. Sambal oelek, sambal tumis, sambal belachan are the ones I know, but according to the Wikipedia page, there are even more varieties, especially in Indonesia. Sambal can be eaten like a chili sauce, to add flavour and heat to dishes, or cooked as an ingredient. One of my favourite Singapore-style vegetable dishes is sambal kangkong, or water spinach stirfried with sambal. Here is a recipe for sambal 

#AtoZChallenge – R is for Rojak

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. 

R is for Rojak

They sat together at the round table. The stools were bolted to the floor so there was a small gap between them. But they leaned towards each other to bridge that distance, their heads close, a large mug of green sugarcane juice on the table. She gave it a stir, the ice rattling in the silence between them.

The hawker centre by the sea was abuzz. It was the evening rush on a Friday. Friends chattered, colleagues clinked mugs of beer to wash down the day’s hard work. Kids laughed, parents chided. Hawkers called out, plonking plates down on tables, slippers flip-flopping around. The smell of burning charcoal from the satay stalls and the aroma of different types of cooked food wafted around, stirred up by some overhead fans that did little to assuage the relentless heat and humidity.

He looked around, then glanced at her, watching her sip the cold green liquid. She was not convinced of her beauty, but he thought she was the most exquisite person. He couldn’t believe that they had dating for six months. He loved being with her, taking her out on dates to different places across the island. He loved watching her eat – she was always willing to try new places, different cuisines, and would never hesitate to take a bite out of even the strangest of new foods. He loved her honesty, her thoughtfulness, the way she twirled her hair around her finger while she was thinking about something. Oh hell, he loved her. He really did. And he was going to tell her that. Tonight. Yes. Tonight would be the night. It was six months after all, it was high time he did.

She saw him watching her and smiled, straw between her lips. Her fingers tapped against the straw. She seemed a little different tonight.

“Hope you don’t mind, I ordered some food before you arrived. Some of your favourites, like satay and rojak!” he said brightly, carefully warming up the conversation before he jumped in with a big emotional “I love you” speech. He thought that starting with one of her favourite topics, food, would put her in a better mood.

“Oh sure, that’s great, thanks,” was her reply.

“Should be coming soon. You must be hungry.”

She put down the straw, took a breath, and turned to face him, her head tilted slightly to the right, the light shining off the beads of sweat gathered at her temples.

Oh, no no no. She was going to say it, but no, he anted to say it first. He wanted to be the one who told her ‘I love you’ first.

“I lov…”

“I don’t think this…”

Wait what? What was she trying to say? She didn’t say ‘love’ she said ‘I don’t’. But she had stopped, which meant she had heard him.

They sat there in such awkward silence for a minute as the rest of the hawker centre buzzed around them. No one knowing what to say, no one daring to utter a sound.

A plate clattered in front of them.

A plate of mixed fruits and vegetables, chunks of mango, pineapple, cucumber, beansprouts, tofu, jicama, dough fritters, peanuts tossed with a dark, sweet salty spicy sauce.

“Rojak. Four dollars.”

The voice repeated, an outstretched hand waiting for money,

“Hello. Four dollars. Rojak.”

One of my Mum’s favourite things to eat! It took me a long time to appreciate that unusual taste of the black rojak sauce, which has shrimp paste, tamarind paste, sugar, chili, lime and ginger flower. Rojak is actually a decently healthy hawker centre choice. It’s got lots of fruits and vegetables providing lots of crunch, there is protein in the beancurd and peanuts. If you go for the more premium version, grilled cuttlefish is added. It may not look pretty or photograph well, but it sure is tasty.

Here is a recipe 

 

#AtoZChallenge – Q is for Qing Tang or Cheng Tng

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. 

 

 

Q is for qing tang or cheng tng (清汤)*

 

He was convinced that qing tang or cheng tng was the answer to most heaty (yang)** ailments.

If he felt a sore throat coming on, cheng tng it was.

If he felt the slightest bit constipated, a big bowl of cheng tng helped flush things along.

If he spotted a single pimple, more cheng tng please!

On the rare occasions that he feasted on fried chicken, finger-licking good fried chicken, dark meat, drumsticks, wings and all, he gulped down an extra large bowl of cheng tng to combat the heatiness of his greasy meal.

He soon became known as the Cheng Tng Man to his colleagues. His younger colleagues snickered at his every mention of cheng tng, those who didn’t snicker sometimes asked him for recommendations of his favourite cheng tng places. They asked him for recipes, but he didn’t know how to make it.

“You should make your own, since you’re so particular about your cheng tng!” said James, his usual lunch kaki and a fellow cheng tng lover.

That was true. He was particular and he could tell if stalls used shortcuts in their cheng tng or added unnecessary ingredients, or worse, if they missed out on key ingredients.

To him, a true cheng tng consisted of pearl barley, white fungus, lotus seeds, dried longan, gingko nuts, red dates, pang da hai (sterculia lychnophora or malva nut), and strips of dried persimmon. The soup needed to have a slight taste of pandan from about two or three knots of pandan leaves, and a slight sweetness from sugar. The right cheng tng was harmonious. A balance of just the right amount of these different ingredients, to orchestrate a cooling, soothing, mellifluous tonic for the soul and a refreshing dessert for the body. He felt that it was best consumed cold but if the ailment was constipation, he believed that the cheng tng was best drunk warm.

So one Saturday, he went to the supermarket and the Chinese medical hall and picked up all the ingredients. He even picked up a new pot for cooking his cheng tng in. And in his new cauldron he brewed up different versions of cheng tng, adding a little bit more dried persimmon to one concoction, a little more pandan to another, extra pang da hai to the third. Until he had found the right balance, the very best version of cheng tng he could ever concoct. He shared some with his friends and family, who clamoured for more. His colleagues asked for his recipe, which he slyly decline to divulge. Everyone wanted more and more and he began to charge for his cheng tng. It was hard work after all, buying the ingredients and cooking his brew to perfection. His customers began to request for specific brews, attuned to their various heaty ailments, and so he developed a cheng tng solution for pimples, another for constipation, and his best seller, the one for sore throats.

Then one of his younger colleagues, yes, one of those who had previously snickered, announced that he no longer was plagued by his rash, not since he had regularly been eating the special ‘anti-rash’ cheng tng. Another raved about the ‘clear skin’ cheng tng. It was a marvel, she said, as her oily t-zone was now pimple-free. The cheng tng craze began to spread to their networks and even to social media. The orders came streaming in. He couldn’t cope with both his regular job and his cheng tng business. As word of mouth spread, he had to formalize his business, adhere to government rules with regards to food safety and hygiene, apply for licences and whatnot. That he expected. But what he did not expect was a visiting Taiwanese songstress getting her hands on one of his concoctions, and announcing at a press conference that it cured her laryngitis, enabling her to continue her series of concerts around Asia.

It was an explosion. It was tremendous. It was overwhelming. He never understood the power that celebrities could wield, until now. He got requests for interviews, he received orders from overseas. He had suppliers offering him discounts for their products if he would just mention that he used their sugar, their longan, their pots and pans. He often wished that he could just go back to his regular desk job, not have to brew another batch of cheng tng again. He wished he could just walk up to a dessert stall and order their cheng tng, he couldn’t do that now as every cheng tng seller recognized his ugly mug. Some refused to sell to him. Others grabbed hold of him, refused to let him leave until they pressed their contact information onto him, telling him they would make great business partners. All this over a sweet clear soup that a singer raved about. All this over a dessert that once gave him such joy to eat. And now just stressed him out.

 

Cheng tng or qing tang (清汤) is a Teochew dessert, and is translated into ‘clear soup’. It originally was known as ‘five fruits soup’ as it had longans, gingko Nuts, barley, lotus seeds, and lily bulbs, and was meant to combat the hot and sweaty summers. When Teochew immigrants brought this soup to Singapore, it became more of a dessert, and more localized ingredients were incorporated and today it has far more than just five ingredients. But essentially it is a sweet clear soup with several different ingredients in it, sometimes including the five above, as well as agar agar strips, white fungus, barley, dried persimmon and more. It can be served either hot or cold.

Here is a recipe 

 

* ok so I may have been pushing it using cheng tng as my “q” food. I mean, I never even knew that it was known as qing tang until I made a guess at the Mandarin translation of this Teochew word.

**yang is opposed to yin which is ‘cooling’

 

 

 

 

#AtoZChallenge – P is for Popiah

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. 

 

P is for Popiah

She was quite certain that this popiah party would not happen.

Why had she even thought about organizing it in the first place? It was so much work! First, she had to source for a reputable popiah skin maker. It had to be thin enough, but not too thin. It had to be of a good size. She had looked online and asked around, then went down to several places just to look at their method of popiah skin-making until she found the perfect one. The skin was just the right size, not too thick, just the right thinness to wrap and roll. So she placed an order for her popiah party.

She was still quite certain that this popiah party would not be perfect.

The filling had to be made. She had to pick up the right amount of jicama or bangkuang and carrots. It would have to be shredded and seasoned and cooked and made sure it wasn’t too wet or too salty or too dry. In other words, the perfect filling.

All the other ingredients would have to be prepared. There would be prawns, lettuce, fried eggs, lupcheong, minced garlic, fresh chillies, roasted peanuts, cucumber, coriander leaves and she was certain that she was still forgetting one or two other ingredients. Should she also include some premium ingredients like fresh crab? How about pork lard? Was that too much?

As she fretted and worried about her popiah party, she nervously twisted the brilliant rock that was sitting on her finger. It was still so shiny and new, it felt awkward on her. Should she take it off when cooking? What if she forgot to put it back on again? Or could she wear it around her neck? That seemed silly. What if she dropped it down the sink or lost it among the shredded jicama and someone rolled it up into a popiah, bit down on her rock and lost a tooth? What if that someone were her future mother-in-law?

Okay okay okay… she was getting paranoid over ridiculous things. She would just quickly run into her room, remove her ring and put it on her dressing table, then when the guests came and she went in to change, she could simply slip it on. And her perfect popiah party could begin.

She rolled up her non-existent sleeves, pushed her shoulders back, took a deep breath, and went into the kitchen to prepare the filling and ingredients. She was ahead of time and she just had to keep at it.

Rinsing. Shredding. Chopping. Mincing. Slicing. Dicing. Frying. Stirring. Scooping.

And plenty of stretching in between.

The doorbell rang. Oh god, was it them already??? She hadn’t showered. She hadn’t changed. And she really needed to pee! She was a horrendous mess. Her kitchen was a disaster. She hadn’t set the table. She hadn’t even cleared all her cookbooks and recipes off the table. And oh oh oh she hadn’t picked up the popiah skins yet. Oh this was a catastrophe. An absolute failure of a popiah party. And it would be her ruin.

The doorbell rang again.

She stood in the kitchen wringing her hands. Then she heard the key turn and the door open. It was Yang and he was standing in her flat, his parents peering out from behind him.

She could only stare at them.

“Wow. When you said come over for dinner I had no idea that you were going to make popiah. I love popiah!” Yang’s father told her.

Yang’s mother whispered something to Yang. Yang stepped forward and gently shooed her into the bedroom.

“You didn’t need to do all this. We could have just bought some food. But it all looks so wonderful, really! Ok now, go clean up, change and all that. We will figure it out ok? Don’t worry, my parents will love you. I think they already kind of do.”

She nodded and quickly stepped into the bathroom, she didn’t want him to see her tears. The shower washed them away and she felt a little bit braver and a little bit better. She put on her new dress and stepped out to meet her future in-laws.

It was only later, after they enjoyed their popiah skin-less popiah party, that she realized she had forgotten to put on her brand new engagement ring, that it had been sitting safely on her dressing table, not lost in the popiah filling, and that no one had accidentally bit into it, and no one had lost any teeth.

 

 

 

 

Popiah is also known as baobing (薄餅). It is essentially a roll, a little like a vietnamese summer roll. But unlike a summer roll, it doesn’t use rice paper. It is a soft thin skin made from wheat flour and the method for making the skin itself is quite fascinating – a ball of dough is held in one hand and then quickly rubbed against the hot griddle to leave a thin skin which is then peeled off after it is cooked. The thin skin means that a damp cloth is used to cover the skin when making popiah. The best way popiah is the ones you make yourself (at least that’s what I think) because you can put whatever ingredients you like, as much sweet sauce and chili as you prefer. It’s actually quite a healthy meal as there is a lot of vegetables, like the cooked jicama filling, the fresh lettuce leaves, beansprouts, cilantro, carrots. If you leave out the lupcheong or Chinese sausage, it’s even healthier as the proteins are boiled shrimp, egg and tofu.

Here is a recipe

 

#AtoZChallenge – O is for Orhnee

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. 

 

 

#AtoZChallenge – N is for Nasi Lemak

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. 

 

N is for Nasi Lemak

She was in the line for nasi lemak when she heard his voice.

“This is the best nasi lemak because of the sambal. Without sambal, it is not nasi lemak and this one is perfect – a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, a little bit sour, and just the right spiciness. It is sublime sambal.”

That voice, those words, sent a shiver down her spine. She remembered the very day she had used those words, ‘sublime sambal’, the day she had first brought him to her very favourite nasi lemak stall. He had picked her up early and they had driven across the island to get here. He kept grumbling, sure or not, drive so far just for nasi lemak. He had already doubted her then. She should have listened to her inner voice when it told her to listen carefully to his words and not be taken in by his gorgeous smile, his deep voice, his bright eyes that wandered.

And here he was. Just two months after he had broken up with her. On a text message no less: “Sorry. This isn’t working for me.” Here he was claiming her nasi lemak stall as his. Ok so it wasn’t hers exactly, it was the very nice makcik’s who always gave her an extra large helping of her special sambal and clucked in sympathy when she first appeared at the stall without him.

But she was the one who had introduced the place to him, and convinced him that it was the best nasi lemak in Singapore. It had become their Sunday morning ritual. An early morning drive across the island for nasi lemak, teh tarik for her, kopi for him. Then a stroll along the boardwalk to work off the lemak-ness of the coconut rice and the fried ikan bilis. They had discovered the nearby cinema, a little older than the spanking new ones in town, which meant fewer Sunday crowds. And sometimes went bowling just for the heck of doing something different.

His voice brought her out of her reminiscing and back to reality. It was her turn and the makcik already was preparing her usual order with a smile. She reached for her purse and sneaked a look behind her, to see if she could avoid walking past him. The line was long and he was quite a way back but she could tell it was him. He was tapping his foot impatiently. She couldn’t see who he was with but it was definitely female.

Her heart flipflopped but she knew she was being silly. He had refused to answer her messages, emails, voicemails, and phone calls. And while she had been weepy and sad, angry and hurt, eyes red, nose leaking, for weeks until her best friends finally got tired and forced her back into un-tissue papered life again, he had moved onto someone else. Now he was swooping in on her nasi lemak territory.

And that was too much.

No longer could she stroll on the boardwalk without thinking of the way he held her hand, no longer could she go to the cinema without missing his arm around her. So this stake on the nasi lemak stall was hers to claim. She would not, could not, have him here every Sunday, or any other day. She did not want him to be able to savour the luxuriously coconutty rice, the crunchy ikan bilis and peanuts, and she especially did not want him to eat a single bite of any of this with the piquant sambal. It was her sublime sambal. It was not his.

She realized she had muttered the last few words out loud. The makcik looked at her with concern as she handed over the money and asked, “he’s here is it?” She nodded, stunned that the makcik had noticed.

“Don’t worry, I don’t sell to him, ok?”

She walked away with her packet of nasi lemak, trying not to look back. But curiosity got the better of her and she stood a distance away, peering out from behind a pillar.

When it finally got to his turn, the makcik shook her head at him and waved him away. He said something, makcik waved him away again and gestured to the customer behind him. He threw up his hands and turned to look around the hawker centre. She quickly ducked behind the pillar, her heart pounding. She couldn’t believe the makcik had done it.

He never returned to the nasi lemak stall again, the makcik told her a few Sundays later. It seemed that he had relinquished the nasi lemak to her. She was better off without him, she now knew. She had wasted tears on him, she now knew. But she had her nasi lemak and her sublime sambal back, and for now, that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

 

 

Nasi Lemak or ‘oily or fatty rice’ has its roots in Malay culture and cuisine. It is rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, and usually served with fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hard-boiled or fried egg, cucumber slices and sambal. The Singapore Chinese version comes with a variety of sides like fried chicken, sausages and luncheon meat. It makes for an excellent breakfast.