Spicy sour kungfu kick.
By Foong Li Mei & Szetoo Weiwen
Not all chinese are fans of Chinese New Year. Unless your last name is Johansson, you can have too much scarlet(t). Chinese New Year feels like a celebration of obligation – a minefield of dos and don’ts. Bring on the ang paus and lion dances, but this writer could do with less stress, spring cleaning and songs. Especially the songs.
But whatever bone this Chinese Grinch has to pick with CNY, it’s not in the vegetable acar in front of her. Yes, this Chinese New Year staple of the Szetoo clan is as red and tedious as they come. The vegetables have to be chopped up, marinated in salt, squeezed in a cloth to drain excess juice, and sun-dried for several hours. The crimson sauce pops and splatters all over the cooktop and needs stirring ad infinitum. But all is forgotten when the crunchy pickle deals a spicy sour kung-fu kick to the tastebuds.
Koh Siew Leng (mother of Cooking People videographer Szetoo Weiwen) doesn’t seem to mind the chopping and marinating and wringing and stirring. Acar is her family’s lunar New Year must-have. She makes a mother lode every time for friends and family. The recipe is her mother’s, who in turn inherited
it from her mother.
In mid-stir, Siew Leng nonchalantly asks if we’d like nasi ulam for lunch, as if all the effort she’s just put in to prepare our nasi lemak lunch was a walk
We convince her to stick with nasi lemak, thus introducing me to one of the best sambal I’ve ever tasted – sweet fragrance dances delicately with fiery spice. I glance at the acar sauce cooling on the cooktop, and the mound of vegetables Siew Leng has diced the day before, and wonder how the 52-year-old musters the energy to do it all.
‘Do you eat like this every weekend?’ I ask the family, in between mouthfuls of homemade sambal and coconut rice.
Siew Leng’s husband laughs. ‘Every week? We eat like this every day!’
They were college sweethearts in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and obligatory guinea pigs to each other’s enthusiastic cookery – and not without misadventure.
‘Sometimes the meals were a little ruined,’ says Siew Leng understatedly, ‘but… don’t want to waste lah.’ Her daughters share a grin at the memory.
Twenty-seven years and two thick diaries bulging with recipe cut-outs later, Siew Leng has definitely gotten a handle on the pots and pans. She’s even developed a cooking philosophy for dummies (like yours truly). In her own words:
• Passion and love when you cook
• Research the recipe
• Don’t rush it
• To ruin the meal wastes food
Speaking of which, Siew Leng never ta-paus without a tiffin carrier. She makes her own compost and proudly opens the lid of the bin to show me what actress Bette Midler calls ‘a manifestation of God’s presence’. The pungent heap crawling with maggots reminds me that God comes in many forms. Midler is not far off the mark – the stench and the white crawlies have their place in the Grand Plan, and possibly the biggest there is. Thanks to them, life is continually renewed.
Everyone in the Szetoo household knows their place when Siew Leng cooks – they never seem far away. While she’s busy with the veg, her husband hooks up the blender, arranges the cut greens drying out in the sun, and does the laundry. He will hike to the 99 Speedmart nearby when Siew Leng complains that the new brand of vinegar she’s using doesn’t have the usual nose-stabbing oomph.
The lunch preparation is a sight to behold – mostly because it is rare to see so many kinds of cooking going on in a kitchen anymore (my Chinese New Year reunion dinners are now mostly in restaurants). Siew Leng is obviously the executive chef. Weiwen and her second sister, Weishya, fall-in to line comfortably beside her, juicing green apples and lowering the stove fire and reminding their mum to roast the chicken at a lower temperature, so the insides are well-cooked.
It’s a while before I realise that, pen and notebook abandoned, I too have been co-opted, peeling egg shells by the sink. This professional observer has been initiated into a coven of cooks and feels generally proud.
Conversation drowns whirring juicer and ticking oven. Weiwen is telling her mum about the atrocity of yong tau foo costing RM1.20 each at the mixed-rice stall near her workplace.
‘Now [the hawkers] usually buy the yong tau foo from the market, the pre-prepared kind with a lot of flour in them. They don’t make it themselves anymore,’ Siew Leng replies sagely, and almost conspiratorially.
‘So, aunty, I assume you don’t really like to eat out?’ I ask.
‘Very hard [to eat out],’ interjects Weiwen with a smirk. ‘We can have all gotten into the car and still can’t decide where to eat, my dad in his driver’s seat going, ‘faster choose!’, and so we asked him to pick somewhere too –’
‘ – but he says he’s already driving, so he’s already contributing to the [choosing] process,’ continues Siew Leng, to everyone’s laughter.
Contributing one’s share in a family may well be the reason why we’re tapping on our tablets and not, say, sharpening our hunting spears. In their book The Family: A World History, Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner cite evidence showing that in the valley of the Nile, dating from around 9th millennium BCE, women were engaged in ‘new’ pursuits like agriculture while men continued hunting. Everyone pulled their weight in feeding the family – men brought home game meats as the seeds sprouted, the women’s green thumbs pointing the way forward.
‘Certainly agriculture marked a transition toward a world more recognisable to modern humans; it permitted many more people to live continuously in a given area, and was crucial to the growth of larger and denser settlements and thus to the emergence of more complex societies,’ write Maynes and Waltner.
In other words, division of labour in a family has made us who we are.
Watching Siew Leng and her husband taking turns to stir the sauce for her Chinese New Year specialty, and their daughters handing the necessary ingredients and cooking tools, I realise that I am not looking at a perfect family. I am looking at a family with a future together – an endearing sight amidst the collapsing marriages around us.
While the acar is more proof of how tedious it is to prep for Chinese New Year, Siew Leng’s family reminds me that the festival is not meant to be greeted in isolation. Stripped of all its ‘rules’ and obsession with bringing in wealth, the season of reunions is perhaps a celebration of family – how far we’ve come, and how far more we will go, hand in hand.
Acar (spicy pickled vegetables)
2kg cucumbers, cut lengthwise into approx. 4cm strips
1kg cabbage leaves, cut into 2 to 3cm squares
1 kg carrot, peeled and cut into approx. 4cm strips
500g long bean, cut into approx. 2-3 cm
2 cups cooking oil 350g sugar
1 cup vinegar
250g toasted peanut, skinned
and pounded 100g roasted sesame seed
TO BE GROUNDED
25g dried chili, soaked and boiled
500g big onion or shallots
50g turmeric root
6 stalks of serai or lemongrass
50g lengkuas (young parts)
50g buah keras or candlenut.
1. Rub cucumber strips with 3 tbsp. salt. Leave aside for 1 hour. Wrap with clean towel or cloth bag and squeeze out excess liquid. Place cucumber strips on a tray and leave out in the sun for 2 to 3 hours (this retains the cucumber’s crunchiness).
2. Season the other vegetables with 1 ½ tbsp. of salt each. Leave aside for 1 hour until vegetable turns soft. Extract the excess liquid and arrange them in separate trays. Sun for 1 to 2 hours.
3. Heat 1 cup of oil in a wok and stir-fry the ground ingredients until fragrant (or when the oil begins to separate). Stir continuously and add water. Stir in sugar as well and bring to a boil, then leave it to cool completely.
4. Toss the vegetables in the sauce evenly and store the mixture in a clean glass jar. 5. Mix in the peanuts and sesame seed only when serving.
Note: The acar will keep for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator if it has been sunned adequately, and if the peanuts have not been mixed in.