A day after my 12th birthday, my grandmother taught me two skills: how to cook rice on a gas stove and how to pound sambal tumis using a pestle and mortar.
There is a technique to pounding well, she asserted, wagging her finger at me. I snorted. Now, I realized that a well pounded sambal tumis is a sensory experience for the palate. You get that burst of spicy flavour in your mouth as your molars grind on the coarse bits of garlic, onions, chillies and shrimp paste.
Every good sambal starts with a dull knocking sound of pestle pounding in a mortar filled with freshly sliced chillies, red onions and garlic. As the ingredients get progressively beaten into a pulp, a sharper tok-tok-tek-tek rhythm emerges with the occasional quashy sound as the pestle moves from sides to centre and sides again.
My grandmother would run her finger over the pounded mash. Depending on how fussy she was that day, I would probably need to pound for another ten minutes or so. Once satisfied, she would add the shrimp paste – belacan – and I would use the pestle to push and prod the mix until it formed a coarsely textured mass which would then be fried into a mouthwatering aromatic swell and used as a base stock ingredient for all that was scrumptious.
However, as a teenager, I regarded her “fetish” for using the pestle and mortar as a waste of time and pointless. I would grumbled loudly whenever I was tasked with this chore.
When I was 22 and fresh out of university, my grandmother rushed up to my bedroom one Saturday morning. She insisted that I dropped whatever I was doing and shooed me to the kitchen to pound sambal ingredients. “Don’t stop until I say so,” she hissed and left the kitchen hurriedly.
Through the open kitchen door, I winced as I caught snatches of the conversation outside. The visitors – grandmother’s coterie of nyonya foodies – were in the living room. They wanted to know if the “beautiful flower in the garden” had been spoken for. Unfortunately, their interest plunged the moment they realized that I was born in the year of the Tiger. A Tiger wife. Who wants a Tiger wife? Gua takut lor. Dia sen jit harimau. Nanti dia makan laki.**
My disappointed grandmother looked at me and shook her head woefully. I hugged her although inwardly, I was so relieved. I can’t bear the thought of arranged marriages. She perked up when I told her that the sambal was ready. She chuckled and crowed defiantly, “Everyone said you must be a good cook; from the song of your pestle and mortar.”
When I visited mother today, she was slicing chillies for sambal belacan. A clump of belacan handpressed to both sides of a steel knife burned slowly over the flames of a gas stove. Its briny smell giving way to smoky pungency as the edges charred.
“I want to pound that,” I said, eyeing the waiting pestle and mortar. It has been years since I last held a pestle and it took me a few false starts to get into the rhythm. After pushing the toasted pieces of belacan into the pounded chillies, I squeezed two limes, added a pinch of sugar and spooned the fiery tangy dip into a serving plate.
In a pique of nostalgia, I spooned several spoonfuls of steaming hot rice into the mortar, pushing the rice around into the dregs of leftover sambal until it formed a pinkish sticky compress with bits of chilli sticking out. This was a treat grandmother and I used to share in the kitchen. Today, I shared it with mother. It was as scrumptious.
**translation: I am terrified. She was born in the year of the Tiger. I fear that her husband will die young after marrying her (literally, she will “eat” her husband)