Wrapped up in love
In this month of love, our columnist would like to dedicate her article to a woman who never stops surprising her with her maternal wisdom.
FROM rustic-chic cafés to fancyschmancy restaurants, Ipoh is bursting with exciting dining options nowadays, and I have a field day trying each one out when I’m home. When it comes to the reunion dinner for Chinese New Year, however, the venue is strictly nonnegotiable: my home.
That’s because we have a phenomenal chef – my mother. As the second eldest child in a huge family of 10 children, she honed her culinary skills the hard way, by preparing meals over charcoal and woodfire for her growing siblings. According to family lore, she got caned by my late grandmother because she was so absorbed in reading a book that she ended up burning the rice.
Survivors of culinary boot camps are fast workers. The few times that I tried helping her out with making pineapple tarts, she had popped an entire tray into the oven while I was still struggling with one measly morsel. In the last few years, I have left it to her to prepare our reunion dinner unassisted. Not because I’m lazy, but without me bumbling around in the kitchen like a bull in a China shop, she would probably get things done much faster.
Recently, work made it impossible for me to spend as much time at home as I would’ve liked. So I thought, for a change, I would help out with making Nyonya meat rolls or lobak, her signature dish.
We were about to start when the phone rang. She ran off to answer it.
I looked up inquiringly as she padded back into the kitchen. “That was Mrs Lim. She was complaining that her sons just sit in front of the TV and never chip in. Tsk, tsk,” she said.
“Wah, I’m such a good daughter,” I congratulated myself silently as I put one completed roll in a container.
Mum looked over at my masterpiece.
“Yun, remember to roll them up tightly, ya. You should minimise the empty space in the rolls. We want them to be as dense as possible.”
I snorted dismissively. Scoop chopped vegetables and minced meat onto a beancurd sheet, roll it up and seal with flour paste ... I wouldn’t screw up child’s play. By the time I had made my fifth or sixth piece, I was already fantasising about taking over the whole reunion dinner preparation for next year.
Mission accomplished, I excused myself to meet some friends for a drink. When I returned home an hour later, I was shocked to see my mother sitting on the floor, with a bowl of lobak rolls in front of her. She looked close to tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked in alarm. She pointed to the rolls. Some had snapped into half, their contents spilling out. Others were ruptured, like split sausages.
I stared at her in bewilderment. They were intact when I left, so they must have disintegrated dur- ing the frying process. I didn’t recall this ever happening in the past, so what on earth had happened? In a flash, I understood why. My mother had mentioned several times, “Wrap up tight-tight.” Thinking it was just her being fastidious, I didn’t pay attention, but now I could see that my carelessness had created numerous air pockets that left the rolls softer than the ones she had made – and these had made them snap. Instead of trusting that there was logic to her method, I thought I knew better, continued doing things my way and this was the disastrous result.
Belatedly, I recalled how she got up early to get the best cut of meat from the butcher, spent an hour peeling the water chestnuts and carrots, mincing the onions and garlic, and chopping the meat by hand because, hey, everybody knows that hand-chopped meat beats machineminced, hands-down. I glanced at my malformed handiwork, and then at the golden brown beauties that my mother had made. I felt like crying, too.
There had to be something I could do.
Studying the mess in front of me, a germ of an idea occurred to me.
“Mum, what if we wrapped the filling in new beancurd sheets?” “How?” “Tear away the skin, scoop out the filling and make a new roll using a fresh beancurd sheet.”
She considered my suggestion. After the longest minute of my life, she broke her silence. “OK, let’s try.”
Nervously, I sat down for lobakmaking, Round Two. I had no idea if my plan would work, to be honest, but it was worth a go. Anything was better than doing nothing and seeing mother so upset.
I ripped open the half-cooked sheets and scraped the filling into a bowl. Then, I laid out a brand new, uncooked beancurd roll on the table. Like before, I spooned in the filling, folded the sides inwards and made sure that this time, the resulting roll was packed snugly. This step was a tad more difficult to perform now because of the filling, which had hardened noticeably after being half-cooked.
Feeling as if I was about to face my ultimate test, I brought the completed rolls to the stove. “Mum, no guarantee, ah,” I said. “OK,” she replied. I watched nervously as she dropped one into the boiling oil.
Miraculously, the lobak roll held its shape – and the contents stayed intact – when mum lifted it out of the wok. Almost as nice as the perfect golden-brown cylinders that my mum had made.
In total, we managed to rescue five rolls. Most importantly, a smile was back on my mother’s face.
The other thing about my mum is she loves playing Santa Claus. Being the perfectionist that she is, mum won’t grab any random item off a supermarket shelf – she will personally make and deliver homemade delicacies like her precious hand-made lobak rolls to loved ones.
And that’s what we did next. The first address on her list belonged to her good friend, Mrs G. I pulled up outside her gate in First Garden and as mum got ready to alight, I glanced idly at the lobak rolls in the container, which she had left uncovered so that it wouldn’t masuk angin. I yelped in horror.
“Why is one of my spoilt rolls in there?” I demanded.
“Don’t worry, she won’t laugh at you.” She saw through me immediately. “I want to show her what went wrong so that she won’t make the same mistake when she prepares her lobak rolls.”
Can’t stop somebody from practising altruism, can we? Besides, Mrs G was too nice to share my epic failure with the whole world. I hoped.
After completing our delivery, we headed home.
“So you can write this story in your column now.”
I laughed out loud. “Are you joking?” “Nope.” “Well, in all my columns, I try to include a key message or lesson. What would be the lesson here?” She went silent. Ha! My job is harder than it looks, leh, I thought to myself. Out loud, I said, “Listen to your mum?” I announced the first thing off the top of my head. “Pay attention to your elders? How to make lobak? No, lah. Where can, so simplistic?”
Less than a minute later, looking absolutely straight-faced, she said solemnly, “After this hard-earned lesson, I won’t make the same mistake again.” Dang nabbit. It. Actually. Works. Can somebody say, Mrs Wong-2, Alex-0?
Now excuse me while I run through the text with a fine toothcomb before sending it to the editor. As mum says, must wrap tighttight, yes?
Alexandra Wong (www. bunnysprints.com) is grateful to her mother for 30+ years of infinite patience and promises that she’ll listen closely at the next cooking lesson.
Mum knows best: Mrs Wong is fastidious in the kitchen and strives to teach her daughter to be the same. (Inset) Mrs Wong as a young woman.