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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

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.

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