an excerpt from Goodbye My Kampong! Potong Pasir, 1966 to 1975
DESPITE our poverty, my mother did not cut corners when she made her kueh. She would make all of us prepare the paper tubes she needed for her sesagun. In the old days, she would sell each tube of sesagun for five cents. My elder brothers had to peddle her wares for her. The tube was a slimmer version of the paper cones that the kachang putih men used to fill their roasted nuts. To create the tube, we used a chopstick and old newspaper, leaving an opening which we would seal, once it was filled with the sesagun. Then we decorated each paper tube with thin strips of coloured crepe paper and twirled it up the tube like the lights on a barber’s pole. Perenakans had developed the art of cutting paper patterns out of crepe paper, called kertair merah, or red paper. This was done by folding a piece of red paper again and again so that when you cut it with scissors, the underflows all picked up the pattern. It had to be done artfully, so as to not sever the folds. It was this kertair merah strip that was pasted onto the paper tubes, transforming old newspaper into a festive decoration. Children and adults loved to eat the sesagun by tossing their heads back and tipping the sesagun into their mouths. More often then not, the fine mix caught in one’s throat and made one cough. But that was part of the thrill.
Not many people could make sesagun well. Very few people know the technique these days. Mak would grate fresh coconut kernel manually till it was very fine. Then she would dry-fry it in a kwali with rice flour and sugar, to create a crisp, granulated mix. It had to be stirred continuously. A proper, cast-iron kwali was needed to made this perfect, as it roasted the coconut and rice flour and crystallised the sugar without burning the ingredients.
Her kueh baolu was just as legendary. We would take turns to hand-whisk the egg and flour batter, to introduce as much air as possible before it was poured into the greased, round mould that had several depressed shapes like a fish, flower or shell. Then the lid was closed till the batter was cooked. Oh, the fragrance when the baking was taking place! I could die for that delicious smell. And the taste! The baolu would simply melt in your mouth!
“When you cook with love and joy, you transmit that to those who eat your food,” Mak said. “Never underestimate the power of the chi vibrations. When you eat food cooked by grumpy, miserable people, the food will turn sour in your stomach.”
What my mother said became my mantra for life. I sing cheerfully when I cook.
© Ethos Books
by Josephine Chia
from Goodbye My Kampong! Potong Pasir, 1966 to 1975 (2017)
published by Ethos Books