Rose takes a while to open the metal gate. When she appears from behind a wooden screen, which blocks the view of her flat from the corridor, she’s in tudong and home clothes. The mismatched outfit suggests she has gone to cover herself after I knocked on the door. The moment we’re in the dining area, she takes off her tudong. I remind her that I’ll be taking pictures, so she puts it back on, along with a nice set of baju kurung.
While she’s changing in her room I notice the ingredients on the dining table. A shallot is frozen in a half cut state, while a tablet continues blasting euphoric American-accented commentaries.
Rose exudes qualities of a cooking host. She talks about different types of sambal and the beautiful flavours they can achieve, while finely slicing several chillies. When she explains how caramelised sugar rounds off the spices, she reminds me of lamblike baby care instructors. Food, in her view, is to be treated with tender too.
My host tells me her mother died when she was only seven, so she learns cooking from anyone who has a recipe to offer. When I ask her for permission to give away this recipe if anyone asks, she says yes immediately: “This shouldn’t stop with me. Furthermore, it should be according to your taste. Any recipe, any cooking should be according to your taste. You might not like the way I cook this. You want more sugar, add more sugar, then it will be the best sambal for you.”
She makes sure to explain every step: reusing the oil that has cooked the ikan bilis will give the sambal more flavour, while adding enough oil to drown the sambal will extend its shelf life — a critical quality since I’m only exchanging it with another sambal cook a few days later.
To ease her into writing her sambal memories, I recount the stories she shared moments ago. She decides to draft a response before writing on the questionnaire I will deliver along with the sambal. She writes carefully, like a schoolgirl taking her first written test, but suffers no writer’s block. Her memories are vivid, including one of her grandmother throwing out a fishing line from their stilt house.
She stops writing all of a sudden and she looks at me. “It brings tears to my eyes you know?” She says. It turns out she has not even told her children of these stories before.
Name: Rose B. Rusdi
A bit about yourself: A 57 year old Baweanese homemaker with 5 children.
Type of sambal: Sambal Mak Kasek
Level of spiciness: Hot!
Special ingredient(s): Gula Melaka
Your sambal memories: Earliest sambal memory was when I was about 3 years old having lunch on the steps of the small jetty near my house clad in a homemade underwear and singlet (my mum sews).
I was eating rice with mussel sambal on a chipped metal plate. Most delicious sambal meal ever. I can still hear my mum laughing with my grandma, saying that whenever they finished cooking, I will appear (by the way my mum cannot cook, she only assists her mum).
I remembered my grandma cooking with my mum helping prepare in an old kitchen area grinding chilli with the old ‘batu giling’ and cooking over the wood fire. We lived in a house on stilts and I can see the sea from the gaps in the wooden floor. When we wanted to cook fish we just threw out a line out of the window and cook whatever we caught.
My mum died when I was 7; so I was not able to learn cooking from her, not that she could cook anyway. Therefore I had to learn by asking and observing people around me. Especially from my aunts when they helped to look after us.
That was how I came across this recipe, “Sambal Mak Kasek.’ Mak Kasek was a distant relative. My aunt was taught to cook this particular sambal by Mak Kasek’s daughter Cik Ram. Apparently her sambal was unique at that time and my aunt felt privileged knowing this recipe.
People then are secretive about their special family recipes and would not share. But this lady was generous, and thus, I benefitted from her generosity. Moreover, at that time, in the 1970s I recalled, those that had tasted this sambal were very interested in the recipe.
To your sambal recipient:
The original sambal has cane sugar instead of gula melaka, I tweaked it a little because I find that gula melaka works better for my sambal. I realise that this sambal evokes memories of sharing, generosity of knowledge and love. Sharing of this recipe, hopefully, will encourage continuity of memories and maybe this recipe can evolve further as more people can learn to cook this particular sambal.
When Sambal Mak Kasek is Delivered…
Aida Muda, and her maiden family, receives the sambal with curiosity. They take turns to peer into the plastic container and poke their noses into the half-opened lid. One nods her head, so does the next person, until everyone in the living room agrees the sambal smells right.
Aida opens the envelop and reads Rose’s memories out loud. She giggles at the part about the fishing line. Her sisters and mother have their eyes glued to the television, paying no attention to her.
“Sedap!” One sister says after she takes a spoonful of Rose’s sambal. She turns to her sisters, anticipating similar responses. Not long after, one exclaims, “pedas!” So Aida asks, “Did she add chilli padi?”
At first, they ask only about the sambal. “Pound ah? Blend? Ketok?” One sister quizzes. “How about the cili kering?” Aida follows up. “Bawang? Garlic?” They make sure no ingredient is left unmentioned.
When nothing is left to ask about the methods of cooking, they begin to wonder about cook. One of Aida’s sisters asks for Rose’s name and neighbourhood, as if the answer to the latter would give her an idea of the person.
Aida goes on to ask who Rose lives with, as she wonders what people, of what age, can take such spicy sambal. Even Aida’s young nephew, who has told his mum he likes Rose’s sambal, quietly picks up her letter to read, while the adults are still debating on her style of cooking.
“But, but, but. There’s a but,” says Aida’s sister. “The oil,” referring to the additional oil Rose added to help the sambal last longer, “we are very particular about that.”
Sambal may have been a common language in many households, but it is also very personal.
Since the family have already eaten their lunch, they plan to eat the rest of Rose’s sambal on another day. Most likely with plain rice, they say. Or with the bread their sister has baked, to make roti sambal. “Take out the oil first,” they emphasise.
**SGX facilitates an exchange of sambal and related memories between two strangers. Our participants live in different times, different social, political and personal circumstances; their experiences with sambal are diverse. Together, their stories form a patchwork of memories across communities — a Singapore story of another kind. A food exchange creates spaces for personal memories to unfold beyond one’s own mind and private life. Because cooking or eating another’s sambal builds new memories upon the old, the food can become enduring testimonies to their lives.