Flash Fiction – Then, the penny drops..

    I ordered chicken lasagna but the dish before me looked anything but. It had two rocket leaves curled up at the top, dusted in sprinklings of grated Parmesan cheese. Instead of tidy layers of pasta, bechamel sauce, cheeses and chicken ragu, my lasagna resembled a molehill with broken slabs of pasta piled on top of each other. 

    I glanced around. There was only one other customer. A young man with a tattoo on his biceps. He sat facing me at my 11 o’clock, nursing a hot pot of Earl Grey and reading a magazine. I hummed along to Misty Blue playing at the background.

    I sliced through the side of my lasagna with the tine of my fork and took a bite. For something that was a visual disaster, I must say it was surprisingly tasty. I positioned my phone in front of the lasagna, snapped a photo and whatsapped it over to you.

    “Enjoying a quiet lunch with some pasta and jazzy music,” I wrote, “what a treat!”

    “I am in a bar in Tokyo, having my lunch and enjoying jazz music too.” you wrote back.

    “Pray tell, is there a grey cat curled up somewhere on the cupboard, maybe?” 

    At that moment, my phone rang. You were laughing at the other end.

    “Just so you know I am not making this up, I am going to pass this phone to the bloke behind the counter.”

     I waited.

     The man behind the counter said that his name is Haruki.

     I giggled. The young man looked up from his magazine, scowling.

     “Did you hear what the man said?” you were back on the line.

     “Oh..c’mon..you don’t expect me to buy that, do you? You guys are probably rolling on the floor laughing at my expense.” I smirked. I had made the mistake of confessing to you that the only other guy who I had ever been totally head over heels infatuated with was Haruki Murakami, the renowned Japanese novelist.

     “Will you be back this weekend? I miss you.” 

     You sighed. “I can’t, babe. I have to tie some loose ends. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

     “Can I fly over instead?”

     “Not this time. I need you to hold the fort while I am away.” You sounded strangely muffled as though you had your hand over the mouthpiece. 

     Something inside me shifted; like the lasagna whose tidy middle portion had expanded during cooking and forced upwards like tectonic plates.  Because as you said goodbye, I swore I heard a high-pitched lady’s voice very close to you gushed, “Ikimashou ka?” – Shall we go?


Filling in the blanks

There were certain blanks in my life I hoped to fill one day.

For some reason, I can’t remember certain things no matter how hard I try. Whenever I am home and looking through Father’s old photo albums, I would squint and screw up my eyes, hoping that perhaps by doing so, I can see beyond the black and white foreground. Hoping that if I stare hard enough, I can spot something familiar in the background.

But most times, I ended up with a bad headache from too much squinting.

There were also certain questions which I am burning to ask my parents, but refrained. Because it inevitably ended up with an uncomfortable silence over the next few days when an innocent question snowballed into a relentless stream of vitriol resulting from, I suspect, a whole host of unresolved animosity between Mother and certain relatives.

So I would keep quiet and try to catch Father in a pensive mood for my questions. Never in the company of the other. Never in a direct way, but in by-the-way kind of questions slipped into casual conversations, punctuated with current observations to deflect suspicions; much like a young girl trying to assess her father’s take on her current crush.

A good way, I have found out was to look at the old photo albums; the one containing pictures of my parents’ courtship when she and he were on a swing staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. Or the one with him looking smart in a narrow dark tie, white long-sleeved shirt and pleated pants; and she in her dress that clinched at her tiny waist before bellowing into a spherical skirt like a bubble umbrella.

I remember that dress. It was maroon with bold pictures of ladies dancing the salsa all around the edge of the skirt just above the hem. I remember that dress because when I was around 12, she altered the dress for a custom-fit and I wore it for my birthday.

So whenever I come across any old photo, the backstory of which I am itching to ask, I would mentally bookmark the page and the few pages on either side. When Father is alone at home, I would take my portable scanner and scan the photos in the old albums. Then, I would casually ask Father who the people in the photographs were or what the occasion was; as if to write a caption to each photo I’d scanned. I usually start with a nondescript photo of them in a group before treading slowly to the object of my lustful curiosity – the one with just Him and Her.

Flash fiction – Awake in someone else’s dream

Isn’t that what the legend says?

If you can’t sleep at night, it’s because

you’re awake in someone else’s dream

           of course!


Is he thinking of me? you ask

Is he wide awake, too? you wonder


I stare at the ceiling,

grinning, then


If I don’t fall asleep soon,

I’ll look like crap in the morning.


Outside, the city lights are fading.

I count them,


he likes me, he likes me not,

      he likes me, he likes me not,

          he likes me, he likes me…hmm…

I look around and spy

four small red dots afar.

He likes me,

          oh my!

Flash fiction – Mind games

   I was happy to hit the road.  As I sang along to my favourite song and thumped the steering wheel to the rhythmic beat, I glanced at my brother who was sitting on the passenger seat.  Henry looked forlorn.  Sad.

   No, let me rephrase that. Henry was happy until it was time to kiss Mother goodbye and he saw tears in her eyes.

   Mother seldom cries when we leave.  Maybe it was because Henry will always scold her and say “You cry as though I am not coming back.”  He knew it was wrong to say such things to an old lady but my brother and I – we both hate sad farewells.

   Actually, it is not the farewells that I hated.  I can’t wait to leave.  Everytime I go home, I feel huge gnarled roots grab me into a suffocating chokehold, bullying me into a cowering heap of filial subservience.

   But for Henry, it was the tears he can’t stand.  Tears made him feel guilty, he confided, as we lay in our bunk beds in the bedroom of our childhood.  

   I remembered that conversation well because that was the first time my brother and I had a “real” conversation.  Before that, he would usually ignore me or treat me like a child; which I supposed was expected, especially when my brother was a 14 years older than me. 

   I called Mother as soon as we reached home to say that our baggage, cramped tightly to the hilt at the back of my car with homecooked goodies – chilli crabs, tempoyak, sambal petai, acar rebung and asam laksa – had made the journey unscathed.  Then she said, “Come back soon.”  And she sounded genuinely sad; surprisingly bereft of that emotional blackmail she doles on us every time.

   Something in her tone tugged my heart.  But I ignored it.  Dying and the dead were something I rather not dwell on at length. 

   My brother remarked that Father looked his usual happy self. I smirked and commented that Father looked as though he was trying too hard. Putting up a show when we were around. I can see through that game face of his, I insisted.

   “They are trying not to squabble in front of us,” I said.  I knew they get on each other’s nerves – alot.  She with her sharp tongue, dripping with sarcasm; ready to strike and cut Father into a sulking mess, even if the bone of contention was something as ridiculous as getting names mixed up in a conversation over some drama serial on tv.

   But my brother begged to differ. He thought that it has a lot to do with money.  Mother told us that Father has been giving money to his relatives, specifically, his sick brother. But Mother’s argument was that Uncle’s kids were well-to-do.  They should not accept Father’s money.

   “They will come up with some sob story and expect your old father to contribute.  Why can’t his own children foot the bill?” she gestured wildly.  “Have you seen their cars? All the latest models.  But hospital bill for one father they cannot afford.”

   My brother shushed her because she was getting loud, and he didn’t want Father who was upstairs taking his nap, to hear.  We can see that pained expression in his eyes every time Mother brought this topic up.

   To me, how Father spends his money was his business. He has his own bank account. She has her own bank account.

   Father once told me that he felt happy giving money to people in need.  When I reminded him that there have been cases of people taking advantage of his generosity, he would say “It’s ok. They have to live with their conscience.  Every time they see me, they will remember what they have done.”

  “In fact,” I told my brother, “I suspect that Uncle would purposely get himself admitted into that ridiculously expensive hospital when he felt that none of the relatives and his children were paying him enough attention.  At least when the relatives know that he is in hospital, they would feel obliged to visit him.  And his children will have to take turns to be at his side, to be at his beck and call, to cater to his every whim when he was in hospital.  Otherwise…yunno…relatives.. they.will.talk… if they come visit and find Uncle alone. Quivering and moaning at his bed.  Alone.”

   My brother laughed softly.  He said that I am starting to sound like Mother and I felt strangely pleased although I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment.

   “Is that why you were always so combative whenever we go home and Father tells us that we should visit Uncle? Can’t you give Father some respect?” my brother asked.

   I bit my tongue.

   “It’s true,” I finally admitted. “Unlike you, I can’t pretend.  I can’t do stoic.  I can’t mask the look of utter disgust no matter how hard I try.”  And it always ends badly; with me displaying that thundering glint my eyes can’t hide, that hard look my face can’t disguise, that curtness my voice refuse to conceal.

   My brother stared hard at me.  I looked away.  Because deep down, I was afraid that I’ve disappointed him.

Flash fiction – The mercurial womb

     My stomach tightened at her long mournful cries. Dark pools of desperation laced the hollow of her haunting yellow eyes. I looked away, afraid of what I saw. Fearful of what I was feeling. She crouched, pleading me to look for her kittens. Her breasts swollen with milk.

     The cat, white with ginger and black rings on her tail, had been in my backyard for almost a fortnight. I saw it one morning as I feverishly multi-tasked: heating the milk from cold, struggling with a recalcitrant coffee machine whilst trying hard to concentrate on the conference call that was coming in from our US partner.

     I followed the direction of constant meowing. The cat huddled in the middle of my husband’s prized Fangesia Robusta Campbell, a clumping bamboo with dark green foliage and checkerboard culms. It didn’t look injured. But it made low guttural sounds. I scribbled a note to the housekeeper to take a look at the cat, before rushing off to work.

     I forgot all about the cat in the following days. I was out of the house before the housekeeper arrived and back after she was gone. Nobody reminded me about the cat. 

     Last Saturday, I heard the meowing again. It was different this time. A whirling melody of contentment and sunshine. I rushed to the back and spied through the metal door grille. Bibi, my housekeeper, had put a piece of old blanket at the far side of the covered porch. Three tiny kittens – all white with big black patches – were lolling around, their mouths firmly latched to their mother’s belly. I giggled.

     “Cute, right?”

     “When did the kittens arrive?”’

     “Two days ago. Sir said to give them away as soon as they are weaned.”

     I turned to Bibi and made a face. My husband is terrified of cats. A stray bit him when he was a boy.

”Don’t name the cat,” she warned, ”or the kittens,” and walked away.

     That was how I spent last weekend: seated on a low stool behind the door grille, reading a book, sipping cold ocha and looking up to watch the tiny kittens rolling around on the big blue blanket. I had read somewhere that we should not try to carry the kittens or go anywhere near a new nest lest the mama cat would run off and abandon her kittens.

     Last night, I came home from work and rushed excitedly to the back porch. The nest was empty. I opened the door grille and walked out to take a closer look. Empty. I looked around. Nothing. I called out for the mama cat. No answer. Thinking that perhaps she had brought her kittens to someplace else, I went back into the house to have my dinner.

     I was walking up the stairs when I heard a sharp primal cry. I rushed to the back porch and saw the mama cat. She hissed at me angrily. I backed away and called Nigel who had retired to his living quarters at the other wing of the main house.

     “The kittens are dead, ma’am,” he said kindly. “We found them under the bamboo clumps this morning, all drenched from the storm last night.”

     ”Where are they now? The mama cat is outside, crying.” 

     “I wrapped them up in a thick bin bag and threw them in the garbage truck.”

     ”Why didn’t you bury them?”

     He sighed heavily over the phone and said exasperatedly, “They are not our pets.”

     I stabbed the intercom shut. Without another glance to the direction of the cat, I shut the door and stomped upstairs.

     This morning, Bibi was in the kitchen when I came down for breakfast. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t late. She was super early.

     ”Nigel said that you had some trouble with the mama cat last night,” she said nonchalantly, pouring me a vege mix from the slow juicer.

     ”She was crying. I can’t believe Nigel threw the kittens like they were garbage.” 

     Bibi shot me a strange look.  She put down my glass of fresh juice and opened a drawer. She took out a packet of wet cat food and walked briskly to the back porch.

     I followed her.

     She opened the back door grille and pushed the container of wet cat food with the wooden end of the broom to the middle of the porch.

     “The kittens were killed. I think it’s the male cat, ma’am. Male cats like to kill kittens.”

     “The father? or other male cats?”

     ”Sometimes the father. Sometimes other male cats.”

     “But why? They are killing their own.” 

     ”Male cats kill the kittens so that the mama cat will stop looking after kittens and go back in ‘heat’ again.”  She sighed impatiently.

     The cat ran to the corner and meowed loudly.

     I slammed my hands against my ears to shut out her tortured cries. Her helplessness were mine. Her anguished cries were mine. The many mornings I cried uncontrollably at the rusty red stain on my panties. That punch in my gut when I see couples with babies. She will no doubt go on to have more kittens sired by the male cat who will probably kill her next litter so that she will be in ‘heat’ again fast; while I waited and marked my ovulation calendar desperately, day by day, month by month, in vain.

     As she stared at me through the dark pools of grief, I nodded. Deep down, she and I — we are both hostages to our mercurial womb.

Flash fiction – The visitor

Ondeh-ondeh. A Malaysian teatime favourite

     “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

     “Don’t you worry about me,” I reply, “I am sure I’ll find something to keep myself busy.”

     “Alright then. Our numbers are on the fridge door. Call if you need anything. Remember don’t go outside if anyone rings the gate bell. There have been cases of ro…..hey! stop fighting in the car…” Helen yells, waving wildly as she runs to her big grey car.

     A frayed pillow lopes out of the car window. It sails towards me. I catch it in mid-flight. It limps in my hands, the bulky kapok stuffing languishing on both ends, its cotton cover smelling faintly of stale urine.

     I stretch upwards, close my eyes and take a deep breath. Fresh morning air. I miss this. I twist my body from side to side, gingerly ironing the kinks of sleep.

     “Hello Aunty”

     Her head is bobbing above the concrete wall. Her bandanna a streaky deep pink with sweat. She pushes herself up on tip-toes, her chubby fingers with their glittering nail polish grab precariously to the brickwork.

     “You must be Helen’s aunty. I recognize that thing on your face from the photo.”

     I give a tight smile. That thing… is a huge birthmark which covered my left cheek.

     “I am Kitty, your next door. You like nyonya kuih? I make ondeh-ondeh today. Very sedap one. I give you try.”

     Before I could protest, Kitty is in front of the house and commanding me to open the gate.

     “We have tea together,” she says, toddling right in and making herself at home.

     I walk into the kitchen to switch the kettle on.

     “My tea no milk no sugar ok. Kosong. I on diet”

     I roll my eyes.

     “I dunno why but I always thought you died long ago.”

     Her voice sounds suspiciously faint. I rush out of the kitchen.  The door to my bedroom is ajar. Kitty is peering into my wardrobe. I clear my throat loudly. “Oh, sorry..I thought the washroom is in here. Wow! what an old big jar!”

     I glare at her and point to the direction of the toilet. She waves dismissively and goes back to the dining room instead.

     I watch her pick up a coconut-coated ondeh-ondeh dumpling, tear it apart before slurping the thick palm sugar syrup tickling out.

     “So it is true..the stories about Helen inheriting a large antique jar.  Yunno, I heard that these kind of old jars have to be careful because sometimes roaming spirits like to hide inside.”  She narrows her eyes and taps her finger against the side of her nose. “And you know what else I heard? That kind of spirit will appear like a real person, like you and me.”

     My left eye twitches.

     “You shouldn’t listen to stories like that,” I chuckle.

     She pushes the plate of ondeh-ondeh towards me. I stab my fork into one, take a small bite and syrupy palm sugar gushes into my mouth. I purse my lips and run my tongue lightly across my hidden fangs, carefully avoiding Kitty’s snooping eyes.

     “This is so juicy,” I muse, eyeing Kitty’s soft chubby neck.  I clench my teeth to keep myself from drooling shamelessly. 

     “You don’t exercise?” she asks suddenly.

     “Huh? Oh yes. I mean No. I supposed I’d start soon.”

     “Me also first day keeping fit. You see this? My hubby whatsapp this picture to me yesterday. Although he said joke joke only, I feel that he is trying to hint something at me. What do you think?”

     I jerk backwards as she thrusts her phone in my face.

     “You think I am fat?”

     “No, not at all.” I lie.

     She pops another ondeh-ondeh into her mouth and chews noisily. “I want to teach my hubby a lesson. I want to exercise so that one day, I will surprise him with my slimness.” 

     She reaches out and clasps my hand urgently, “Aiyoh, yunno, this morning I wake up early to go jogging. That time when I start to run, it is already bright.  Then ahhh.. I saw got three pariah dogs.  So I pretend to bend down and pretend to pick up a stone to throw at them.  Usually dogs when they see people do that, they will run away one. But dunno why lah, this time the dogs start to bark at me pulak. So celaka!”

     She looks at me as if to check if I am listening. “So I say “shoosh! shoosh!” and look for stick. But they still bark.  Then I decide to walk and don’t care about them.  But I could feel they are following me.  Then, I saw Mrs Narasamy opening gate to throw her rubbish.  So I wave at her and faster faster run to her house.  Then ahh.. the dogs also start running. Alamak! mati me!”

     I giggle. Kitty nods her head knowingly and continues, “I turn my head to see how near they are.  Next thing I know, I crash into Mrs Narasamy’s  laundry rack.  Aiyoh, my whole body fell on the rack and altogether all fall on the grass.  Damn shy because whole family quickly rush out of house to help me.”

     I struggle to stifle a laugh at her Manglish rant. 

     She looks at the clock and stands to leave.  She leans towards me and says in a low voice, “Please  don’t tell Helen that I was here. It is our secret ok.”

     “Yes, it would be our little secret,” I smiled inwardly; relishing the day I will wrap myself around her chubby body and carry her with me into the old jar.

Flash fiction – House on Mewsing Hill

     “Faster! Faster!” she yells, as I struggle to keep pace. Gasping for air in a burst of effort, I lean forward to leverage my stride. 

     “We shouldn’t go to the house. Mother will be furious.” I blurt.

     My legs wobble as I bend doubled to catch my breath. I buckle under and sit unceremoniously on my butt. “Stories. About the house. Sightings,” I huff.

     “C’mon. Stop being stupid. It’s these crazy people,” she sniggers, kicking at the rain-soaked gambling chits embedded in mud. Burnt-out joss sticks stand alongside maggots-infested cakes offered to wandering spirits for “lucky numbers” to bet on.

     I stare at the house. The roof caved in where rotting trusses gave way. Windows gaped; their frames ripped out. Creepers which had taken over the front yard now threaten to overwhelm part of the house.

     “You can go ahead.  I am going home now.”

     “Cluck! cluck! cluck!” Beth flaps her arms nosily.  “I’m going to tell everybody that you are a wuss.”

     “Whatever,” I yell back, turning to walk away.

     “I’m going to tell your parents that….”, she smiles coyly, “you killed your grandfather.”

     “NO, I DID NOT!”

     “He fell down in the toilet under your watch.”

     “It was an accident!”

     “He had hypoglycemia. You were furious you had to babysit him that weekend. You left him alone downstairs to fend for himself.”

     I march angrily behind her towards the house.The steps creak loudly under our weight.  The afternoon sunlight beams through cracks in the roof. A broken chair here. Half a table there. A piece of mirror lying on the floor. Thick cobwebs hang down the corners.

     I sigh with relief. Perhaps there is really nothing after all. I wander into the bedroom. It smells musty and dank, like stale powdered sweat on a shirt. A doorless wardrobe stands solemnly beside the window, partially blocking out the light.

     They said that her chopped-up body was buried under the cement floor.

     I peer between the wooden slates in the kitchen, wondering if there were empty bottles which used to hold the oils.

     She was skinned. The fatty bits under her skin were fried to extract the oil for black magic.

     The nape of my neck tingles. Something icy touches my shoulder blade. I scream and break into a run. Past the disused guard post. Down the hill. Until I reach the junction to my parents’ house. I slump against the tree to catch my breath. I gag. My throat parch. My head buzzing. I swallow a gulp of air loudly.

     A man appears. He glares at me; the corners of his lips curl slowly into a sinister grin. His bloodshot eyeballs lurk behind hooded lids. There are two black marks on his forehead, like someone had dipped their thumb in ashes and rubbed it on his forehead. A blow fly appears and lands on his hand. He scratches his leathery skin and bloody pus oozes at his elbow. He licks his lips lecherously as he walks past me, the damp smell of mildew hanging in the air.

     “You killed grandpa,” he laughs accusingly.

     “Noooo!” I shriek.

     I steady my knees to stop them from trembling. I lean against the tree and gingerly sit on its buttress roots. I squint towards the direction of the house, expecting to see my best friend run down any minute now. Up on the tree, two squirrels chatter as they scramble from branch to branch, their tails wagging busily. A stray cat stops and stares at me. It sits and starts licking its fur.

     The afternoon heat is making me sleepy. I look at the direction of the house anxiously. Where the hell is this girl? I shake my head to dismiss the image of her lying on the floor of the house. Injured. Dead. Dying. I’ll give it a few more minutes before I sound the alarm and get someone to accompany me to the house.

     A piercing scream. I freeze. My mind goes blank.

     “Booo!” Beth jumps from behind me, laughing. I shouted and clutch my chest, gasping. I take off my shoe, run after her and flung it in her direction in fury. It misses by a yard. 

     “It’s all up here”, she gloats, pointing to her head.“Mind over matter,” she flaps her arms like a rooster as she swaggers past me.

     I turn to walk away angrily when something catches my eye. “Were you there alone?” I stare at her face. A chill runs down my spine.

     “Yaar… unlike someone who ran as if she saw a ghost”, she replies, smugly.

     “Marks,” I quivered, staring at her and rubbing my forefinger against my forehead. 

Caution: subconscious at work

Sometimes one’s subconscious does funny things, like:

first, you innocently pick up to read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, before finding yourself propelled to Anne Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye. By then, you would have decided, what the heck! let’s make it 3 out of 3; and you finish off with Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

What’s the common thread that binds all three? you might ask.

Grief, I would reply. Grief and mourning and moving on without really moving out.

That’s the subconscious at work.

A mischievous little fella he can sometimes be.

Flash fiction – Ghost bird

     From a tree nearby, a bird squawks “owh what! owh what!”  I grab the edges of my pillow and press them hard against my ears. 

     The last time I heard similar cries, a man from one of the houses down the street slipped, knocked his head against the edge of the kerb and died. Was the man old and unsteady on his feet? Who knows?

     But then there was this other instance. A young mother from the house adjacent to the bus-stop, bundled her child into the back of the car, reversed out of her driveway, stopped her car, and got out to close the gate.

     As I boarded the bus, I saw the car rolling down the slight incline, before pinning the young mother against the black steel gates. I pressed the bell in the bus repeatedly, causing everyone to lurch forward as the bus driver braked violently.

     Bloody imprints from the grooved edges of the vertical bars branded cruelly against her face and chest. In the uncomfortable silence as paramedics worked feverishly to save her, the bird squawked.

     Later when I told Mother this, she said, matter-of-factly, “Burung Hantu” – Ghost bird. A Messenger of Death. “Stay away when you hear or see that bird,” she warned, ominously.

     From then on, my ears were always pricked for such cries. I would go about my day religiously watching my steps and surroundings, muttering my prayers to ward off any bad omen or evil spirits lurking if I happened to hear anything that resembled the cries of the Ghost bird.

     Here in the City devoid of trees, I hadn’t heard the cries of the “ghost bird” for decades…until today, that is.

     Something taps my shoulder. Softly at first, before it turns into a sharp nudge. I open my eyes and turn. It is Lena. I sit up immediately. “What? What?” I ask, almost shouting. She scrunches up her face in fear, stammering inaudibly.

     I jump out of the sofa and rush into the house. There, sprawled face-down on the floor with one hand still clenching the phone, is Maria.  I gingerly remove the phone from her grasp and put it to my ear. I hear loud voices arguing on the other end.

     “Hello? hello?” I shout.

     The loud voices on the other end continued arguing.

     I pass the phone to Lena. She speaks quickly to someone in her native dialect before putting the phone down. It is Maria’s daughter, she explains. She has just given birth to a son but the father says it is not his. The baby is different colour.

     I laugh, hugely relieved.  “It’s all gibberish. A messenger of death, my arse.”

     I bend down to gleefully shake Maria out of her fainting stupor.

     Her body rolls over, pupils dilated. A black bird buried deep in her gaping mouth.

Pestle and mortar

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)