Sunday, May 8, 2016

My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what they wanted to cook.  If it had not been for my mother, there might not have been a cookbook.  In particular, if there not been a kitchen such as hers - an atmosphere of love, warmth, busyness, chatter, friendship, family - there would not have been the memories and content for the book.

So here goes….

"The cacophony of chatting, laughter, scolding, temper flares, hollering amidst a range of intonations and volumes is very characteristic of a Nonya's kitchen and dining table.  Many old houses in Singapore had two kitchens.  In our old house, my mother's passions as a cook meant that we divided our kitchen into three parts, not just two.  The kitchen closest to the center of the house, with its cabinets, was where we had our daily meals.  We ate at the dining table lined with clear plastic to catch all the food spills.  To prevent flies and geckos, if any, from attacking our food, we had dome-shaped food covers made of rattan which we placed over plates of food kept at room temperature.  We also had a more formal extendible dining table outside the living room area, which was reserved for grand occasions such as Chinese New Year.  In this particular kitchen, my mother also had a refrigerator where she kept jugs of chilled boiled water, medicine, picnic ham, butter, jam, snacks and fruits.  It was the 'lightweight' fridge.  

In one of the cabinets, my mother stored a variety of canned food such as condensed milk, baked beans, corned beef, luncheon meat, sardines and fruit cocktail.  Her experience during the war years when food was in short supply led her to stock up on food throughout her life.  

The middle kitchen was indoors but it had a continuous open vent, curtained by a wire mesh and plastic sheath, along the length of the back wall to let out the cooking fumes.  The middle kitchen had several wooden plank shelves and drawers to contain her baking trays, Nonya cake moulds, tiffin carriers, and other times which needed more protection from outdoor dust.  A few shelves were set aside for my mother's appliances.  She bought a number in her lifetime as she was always on a quest to find the best blender and mixer.  They were neatly covered in plastic sheets and it was a chore to take the heavy machines out just to use them!  My mother also installed a second refrigerator for meats, vegetables and vacuum-sealed plastic bags of spice pastes.  This refrigerator played an especially important role during Chinese New Year because it could hold all the food we needed to serve over many days.  My mother also had her prep table here on which she chopped and sliced.  It was positioned close to the utility ink, knives, measuring tools and a cabinet full of spices and sauces.  

The third kitchen was outdoors and because this open kitchen could be seen from the road, it was a perennial eyesore for my neighbors even though my mother tried to hide her pots and pans behind rattan chick blinds and tarpaulin.  Such was the extent to which her hobby of collecting kitchen manifested itself.  My mother installed another huge rack to store army-sized pots and pans and heavy items such as the mortar and pestle.  Here, she would set up the portable charcoal stove to boil her kueh chang.  During the season, the 'shed' because steamy and oily with the boilers going at full strength and the dumplings strung along bamboo poles waiting to be cooked.  We had a wash area to do our laundry as well as slaughter the occasional chicken from the nearby kampong village.  The outdoor kitchen also featured a large water dragon pot about three feet tall.  This distinctive jar was carried over from the pre-war days when water had to be drawn from a well.  It was placed here to collect rainwater.  This was once again a result of my mother's experience during the war years, to ensure that we had a constant supply of water if there was ever a shortage."

I myself have been especially busy and distracted with a home renovation.  Some would say, it is a "high class problem" to begin with.  The constant grumbling and conversation topic of fancy moms.  Not least because it is an expensive venture that sets one back by quite a bit, which begs the question, "Why did I even bother?"

I think if my mother had been alive, she would have been quite thrilled at the prospect of designing every little detail of a new kitchen and would have relished the process of investigating and selecting the latest ovens, sinks and refrigerator.   She might not have liked the actual outcome of a galley kitchen with a slanted marble counter, without the outdoor space to air off her aromatic simmering spices, and charcoal stoves holding large pots of gravy.  But she would have been proud that the legacy of a cacophonous kitchen with people coming and going, the fridge doors opening, the fire glowing and the guests lingering around, continues….Happy Mothers' Day.



  

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