REMINISCENCES BY THE KITCHEN STOVE

Some­times child­hood’s most trea­sured mem­o­ries are found in the se­cu­rity of fam­ily

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - YOU JIN

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

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