REMINISCENCES BY THE KITCHEN STOVE
Sometimes childhood’s most treasured memories are found in the security of family
Happiness radiates from childhood memories.
Looking back on my childhood, my fondest memory is of sitting in the kitchen to watch my mother cook. We were then living in Ipoh, Malaya. There was a depression going on after the [Second World] War. Dad was newly demobilised and struggled to make a living with his small wine shop. I was then almost six years old. My parents, my sister and two brothers and I all lived huddled together in a shabby wooden hut. Mum, who had lived a comfortable, well-to-do life, had now to worry about our daily bread.
Our kitchen was crude indeed. An earthen stove blackened by smoke forever greeted us with its round mouth. In one corner of the kitchen were stacked bundles of firewood. Every evening, Mum would sit on a low stool in the kitchen and chop the wood with a clumsy axe. She split each block into three or four thin pieces, shoved them under the stove and set them alight.
As the wood burned, it gave off a delicious aroma. Mum would fan the stove vigorously with a palmleaf; the fire flared and the dry, hard wood softened into a golden glow. My mother would then put the heavy black wok on the stove and start her stir-fry. The whole kitchen soon became filled with sizzling sounds and mouth-watering smells. I would sit on one side, rapt in attention and in homely happiness.
Times were hard so my mother could only afford to make us ordinary dishes, such as vegetables with dried shrimp, fried eggs and onion, steamed pork with salted fish, and fried pork slices with greens. But for me, sitting at that humble wooden table with the whole family, and gobbling up the steamy rice and the simple food, each mouthful tasted like ambrosia.
Once in a while Mum cooked her favourite dish of steamed pork with taro, and that would be a big occasion indeed. She would arrange thin slices of taro and pork tidily in a round earthen pot, which had to sit patiently on the stove for three to four hours. The whole time that it was simmering, Mum would add firewood and continually fan the flames. Each time she did this, the ashes from the stove flew around and showered her.
By nature, she was a clean and tidy woman, but sitting by the fire at such moments her hair would be dishevelled, forehead beaded with sweat and her cheeks covered in grey ash. But her large limpid eyes shone with a beauty only a mother can have.
The sizzling pork was laid before us, the lean meat bright red, the fatty portions glistened like brilliant jewels. The sparkle filled our home. These wonderful meals my mother laboured so hard to prepare helped brightened our lives even as poverty and hard times weighed us down.
When I was eight, our whole family moved south to Singapore. Life didn’t improve much as all six of us were forced to huddle in a rented room at Kallang. Living conditions were really difficult. Seven or eight families shared one big flat, and people squabbled and bickered constantly.
Mum would have none of it. She was a quiet person and had no appetite for gossip. She preferred to stick to her family behind closed doors, and when she had to stir out of the room she would go her own way, minding her own business.
She was determined not to let the crowded conditions prevent her from feeding her family properly. Cooking in the apartment was done not with firewood, but coal. During the hardest times, when we couldn’t afford the big bags of fuel, Mum would take us by the hand and go to the coal shop to buy small quantities of the black cake. Walking home with it loosely wrapped in old paper, she would move slowly, restrained, as it seemed, by the shackles of our hard life.
Later, she would feed the coal into a small stove and fan a small flame into a raging fire. The black cakes greedily absorbed the tongues of fire and turned gaudy red. Perched on her little stool, Mum would rotate the glowing coal around and around with a long iron stick until every piece took on a lurid hue. She then cooked for the family amid the steaming heat.
At midday, she would carefully prepare our lunch. Sitting on her low stool before the stove, she quietly prepared our meal. To me, her slender body looked like a paper cut- out figure mounted in an old frame. In the evening, her lone si lhouet te looked even more melancholy. Whi le the coals glowed in the deepening dusk, Mum attended to the pot, seemingly lost in thought. I’m sure she had much to worry about though she did not share her fears with us. Dad was working very hard at his construction business and was out day and night. Quite often, Mum cooked the food, shared a quick meal with us and kept our father’s portion in a big bowl with a blue floral pattern, packed full and solid.
Home late in the evening, Dad was tired and hungry, his eyes bloodshot and cheeks visibly sunken. The night was deep, and it was not possible to start another fire to warm the food; so he would gulp down his cold dinner ravenously under a dim light,
The whole kitchen soon became filled with sizzling sounds and mouth-watering smells
surrounded by Mum and us kids. Still, despite these hardships, the whole room was warm with happiness. For Dad, the cold food must have tasted delicious as it was made with love.
During our first two years in Singapore, life was a struggle, but slowly our fortunes improved. In l960, when I was ten years old, we moved into a new apartment at Kim Tian Road.
We now had a spacious kitchen, and most importantly, a gas stove. The first time I saw Mum light the stove, the circle of little flames appeared to me like a blue lotus flower, and as bewitchingly beautiful. For Mum, all those years of chopping firewood a nd carrying coal home, and tediously tending to wood fires and hot coals, were over. The spontaneous rush of gas which now burst forth at the turn of the knob must have come as a great relief.
Every day after cooking, my mother would scrub the stove meticulously to keep it shiny. Cooking became so much more pleasurable that she bought many new recipes and tried them with great gusto. Working by the gas stove, she no longer seemed distracted by distant thoughts, but was as gay as a butterfly.
Dad was a food lover by nature, and now that life became more settled his love for cooking began to re-emerge. Every Sunday, he and Mum went on a shopping spree at the food market and came home to practise their culinary art together. The dishes they laid on the table dazzled and delighted us. Meals which had been once a source of comfort now became one of joy.
In the years that followed, grey has slowly crept into my parents’ hair, but so has a sense of contentment with their lives. They now live in a good- sized apar tment, whose kitchen is equipped with a gas stove and oven and a microwave – all conveniences that once seemed so unattainable.
The road that Mum and Dad travelled was an arduous one. Now, sitting on the verandah amidst the gorgeous flowers, they enjoy peace after those difficult years.
As for myself, I appreciate the comforts they have earned, but even more still, I remember the days of hardship when my mother lovingly laboured over a small stove with little more than a few sticks of wood, a pot and her imagination to feed us. We had little then, but the happiness my mother radiated from her kitchen stove made us feel we had everything.
The first time I saw Mum light the new stove, the circle of little flames appeared to me like a blue lotus flower