By Faiqah Rizliana
Aishah peered from her spot at the dining room table. Her mother sat on the ground, a few metres from her, back hunched over as she grounded what seemed to be a paste or rempah, as her mother called it, using a pestle and mortar. Once in a while, her mother stopped to blink back tears at the overpowering fume of the chili, onion and spice mix, and to wipe her hand over the beads of sweat that had collected on her brow. Even Aishah, from her spot, could smell the concoction as it permeated the small kitchen that they were occupying.
She was at the age when her mother started making her help with the household chores. The kitchen is where she spent most of her time after school, watching her mother go about her daily activities. She was too young to do most of the serious work so she mainly sat at the dining room table, chopping up whatever that was needed.
Aishah glanced around her. In one corner of the kitchen she could see a three-tiered shelf of her what her mother termed as essential spices: the first tier contained onions, garlic, fresh and dried chilies, lemongrass and turmeric while the second and third held jars of other dried ingredients that Aishah struggled to learn. Those seeds… What was it? Fennel? And the black ones… something about a star. There was still a lot more to learn. Aishah remembered the day she ruined dinner for the whole family when she mistakenly passed her mother ajinomoto instead of salt. She did not want a repeat of the scolding she had received for that mistake ever again.
Lost in her reverie, Aishah did not realise that her mother had moved from her position from the floor and was frying the paste in a large pot.
"So kuat the smell," said Aishah with her nose scrunched up. If she thought the smell of the rempah was strong before, it was certainly much more pronounced when fried.
"Kuat is good! That means the laksa will have a bit of kick when you eat it."
As she watched her mother add a tub of freshly-squeezed coconut milk and prawn stock into the rempah to make the laksa gravy, Aishah could not help but question how her mother would spend hours preparing and frying her rempah to a fragrant paste. All that time and effort, as well as her insistence on using fresh ingredients (apparently packaged coconut milk had no taste), it seemed like too much work.
As the meal began to come together and her mother served the first bowl of hot steaming laksa on the table, Aishah forgot all about her worries at not being able to replicate her mother's skill and dedication towards cooking. Her stomach rumbled at the prospect of the first bite and she could already taste the amalgamation of flavours, the eclectic marriage of spices, dancing on her tongue.
"How is it?" her mother waited for a reaction, just in case there were any minor adjustments to be made.
"Wah, this noodle got kick!" Aishah happily slurped the noodles, revelling in both the taste of her mother's cooking as well as the fond glances her mother sent her as she dug into her own meal.
"You're so particular about the preparation, mama. I'm just saying, maybe there is more than one way of doing things." Aishah could feel herself wilting under her mother's stern watch but she resolved herself to prove her mother wrong.
"This has always been the way. I learnt it from my mother who learnt it from her mother and now, I'm teaching you." Aishah did not have to look but she already knew her mother's expression, her brow furrowed and her mouth set in a grim line, the one she always had when she was frustrated.
Wordlessly, Aishah gathered the spices and placed them into the blender. She remembered the days as a little girl when she took over her mother, pounding away at the spices until her scrawny arms would hurt. One time, she hit too hard and a bit of rempah flung into her eyes. She still remembered the burn and how she panicked at the thought of turning blind. Her mother's remark that such incidents were normal when cooking did little to comfort her.
"When you pound the rempah, it's dry. But when you use the blender, got a lot of juice come out. Your rempah later become watery, how?"
Aishah did not bother to muster a reply. All her explanations fell on deaf years. It was unreasonable for her mother to insist on cooking being done the "traditional" way. As her blender came to a grinding halt, Aishah scooped out the red-orangey paste, first checking the consistency and then picking out the bits that escaped the machine's blades.
Huffing, her mother stepped back and made her way to the dining table. "I don't understand how you can be so stubborn. All those years your grandmother and I spent teaching you how to cook and you anyhow throw away generations worth of knowledge!"
Aishah resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her mother. It would only exacerbate the situation. She could repeat word-for-word the stories her mother used to tell her growing up. The women of her family, which included aunts, great aunts and cousins, would wake up in the morning to source out ingredients at the pasar. Then the matriarch of the family, her grandmother and later her mother when the former passed away, would direct the younger girls to prepare the necessary ingredients for the day's meal. This ensured that family recipes were passed down effectively from generation to generation. Cooking was not just a family affair but a means for the family to make a living.
During the Japanese Occupation, jobs were scarce and although the men did their part by doing odd jobs whenever they could, it was not enough to sustain the whole extended family. Therefore, the women would prepare extra food to be packaged and sold to their neighbours for extra money.
"Mama, this is laksa style Aishah." Aishah presented the bowl in a pretty glass bowl at the dining table. The dish was tastefully presented, with the bowl packed with ingredients which Aishah had painstakingly placed with tweezers.
All the food that she had cooked was presented this way. Instagram-worthy, she called it. What was the point in learning how to cook if she could not show off her efforts? She was starting to get a good number of followers on her account and there were even offers from people who requested her food to be served at small events. Therefore, presentation was an important element as part of her food preparation.
Her mother dipped the spoon into the bowl and already, the gravy began to spill over due to the sheer number of ingredients being cramped into the bowl.
"Aiyo, why is this bowl so penuh?" Shaking away the need to criticize further, Aishah's mother took a sip of the gravy. A little watery, as expected and lacking in kick but still, pretty good. She schooled her face into one without expression.
Then, she moved on to the noodles. It seemed to be different that the one she usually cooked with. "What noodle is this? Why did you suddenly change the recipe?"
"Spaghetti, mama. It's a thing now. People are mixing traditional dishes with western flavours. It's called fusion and it's really popular. I'm thinking of making a business with this."
"I don't care what it's called. What are you trying to do? What's wrong with my recipe?" Perhaps she was overreacting but to Aishah's mother, her family's recipe was a source of pride for her, and she said so as much. It took her a few tries and plenty of scolding from her mother and her grandmother for her to get the recipe right but when she finally did, she still remembered the way she basked in their praises when they took the first sip of her laksa. Now, her own daughter had broken that tradition by choosing to add her own take to the family recipe.
She looked up at Aishah who was desperately trying to hold her emotions in check. Aishah's face was blank but the way she was gripping at the kitchen table meant that she was sorely disappointed in her mother's reaction. Cooking was something that they both enjoyed but somehow it always became a point of contention between them. Aishah gingerly picked up the barely touched bowl of laksa and put it into the sink.
Aishah opened the door silently, hoping her mother would be asleep. The house was quiet. That was good sign. At least her mother would not be nagging at her about missing curfew. She could deal with the repercussions in the morning. Taking great care not to make any noise, Aishah treaded slowly on the wooden tile towards the living room. As she walked into the room, her breath caught in her throat.
Her mother was already waiting for her.
"Aishah, why don't you have a seat?" Khadijah gestured towards the couch, her voice cold and distance. No. Something was amiss, she could sense it. Aishah knew this day would come but she was hoping it would be forgotten.
"Something funny happened today. I was trying to figure out why I cannot pay your school fees, the bank has been calling, saying that the transactions have not been going through." Her mother waved a stack of paper in her hands, crushing it a little. "Then." She paused. "I called your school. Turns out you haven't been a student there for a few months already."
"Mama, I'm sorry." What else was there to say? "I was going to tell you, really!" Aishah could bear to look at her mother in the eye.
"When? When all your friends graduate already then you want to tell?" Her mother's voice was taking on a shrill tone, the way it always did when she was furious, causing Aishah to flinch back. Aishah's mother ripped the papers in half and threw it at Aishah's feet. "After all I've done for you! After your father left us, I took care of you! And this is how you repay me? What have you been doing all this time, hah?! When you said you were busy with school?"
Aishah wrung her hands, not knowing whether the truth would anger her mother further.
"I've been cooking, mama. My friend and I… We have a business. It's still small so we mostly do home deliveries and stuff." Aishah looked at her mother's face then and she could feel her heart shrivel in her chest. "But we have a good following and reviews have been very encouraging!" she added hastily trying to diffuse the situation.
It turned out that it was not the right thing to say.
"I can't believe you would disobey me like this. Lying and hiding it from me some more. I've had it." She pinched the skin in between her eyes and let out a sigh. "I've decided that you should leave. You want to be an adult so much, to do whatever you want, then get out of my house."
"What?" Aishah was wrecked with disbelief. "Mama- I'm sorry."
"I've worked two jobs for 20 years! Twenty years to pay for your schooling." Her mother stood up and walked into her room. She emerged immediately with a large duffel bag and a stony expression. "I've packed your bag. That's all you need."
"Mama, don't you think you're overreacting just a little bit?"
Her mother looked at her square in the eye. "Fine then, you want to stay? Quit your business and go back to school."
Aishah paused at her mother's ultimatum. On one hand, she did not want to leave the house but on the other, she had sacrificed so much for her business. Her mother sensed her dilemma and regarded her silence as the answer.
"Seems like you've made your decision." She picked up the duffel bag and thrusted it into Aishah's arms.
"But… where will I stay…?"
At this, her mother's face softened. "I called your grandmother already." That did not last long however, and she schooled her expression back into indifference. "Now go."
The kitchen was silent except for the chiselling of the pestle and mortar and the whirring fan which did little to cool down the two women working hard in the stall. They worked well together, clearly in tandem as expected from the years and cooking alongside one another. A tilt of the head and the other wordlessly passed the needed ingredient to the other without any other prompt.
"Business seems pretty good, Nek."
Her grandmother wiped her hand against the towel casually draped around her neck. "People need to eat what. Although everything now so expensive, how to make money liddat? But anyway, thanks for helping me last minute today. Got a lot of things to do."
Aishah only hmm-ed in response and went back to de-shelling the prawns. She was grateful to her grandmother. She was the one who had taught her how to cook when she was young, who came over to when her mother was too busy working even she had to work at the stall to fend for herself when Aishah's grandfather passed away. Aishah always believed that the women in her family were forged from steel.
"Aishah, I'm going to leave for a bit, okay? I have to collect some ingredients from the market. There is a big order for a function tomorrow."
"But Nek!" Aishah had had enough of surprises. Her life had been turned upside down already.
"You're doing so well. I've taught you all I can already. It was a really good idea to offer the spaghetti with laksa. The younger kids seem to love it."
Her grandmother patted the shoulder and Aishah felt her cheeks flush from the praise but she could not tempt down the panic at having to serve the customers on her own.
"Anyway, you won't be on your own. I've called in a favour from someone to help you."
Her grandmother's behaviour seemed pretty suspicious. She had been distracted all day and Aishah was not used to her normally conscientious grandmother appearing so distracted. Perhaps old age had muddled up her mind. Aishah watched her grandmother raise her hand in greeting to somebody in distance.
"Ah, here she is! She will help you run the stall." Aishah looked up from the prawns and into the eyes of her mother. That sneak.
"Well, I'll be off now. Don't burn down the stall." With that, she walked away in a brisk pace, leaving the pair looking at everywhere but each other in the kitchen.
"Nenek said that my spaghetti idea is good." Aishah tried diffusing the situation.
Aishah was met with silence. The air was thick, not only with the smell of fried chilies and onions but also tension. If her mother did not want to accept the olive branch then so be it. Even though not a single word was spoken, the soon fell into an easy rhythm, navigating the small kitchen the same way they often did when they cooked together at home.
Her grandmother came back in the evening, after the dreaded lunch hour, carrying heavy bags of ingredients. Aishah's mother rushed to help her, leaving Aishah alone with the dishes.
"Mak, I have to go home and change before my night shift. I'll go first."
"I really have to go Mak."
Aishah watched her mother kiss her grandmother's hand and hug the old woman tightly. She moved on and offered her hand to Aishah who kissed it hesitatingly. It wasn't a warm offer for her to come home but it was a start. Before she had time to ruminate any further, Aishah noticed a customer lingering outside the stall and went over to serve her.
"Here." She handed Aishah a white envelope. "Open it later."
It was a cheque. And a letter. It was short and simple. Direct, just like her mother.
"I kept this aside as a graduation present for you. But now, I'll leave it up to you."
It wasn't a full-on blessing or even a welcome invitation home. But it was a start. Aishah held the letter close to her chest, and muttered a small prayer of thanks.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017