Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.
I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.
The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.
After taking pictures of the sambal over their rose-patterned placemat, I ask if I can taste it. Aida and her sister end up bringing me also the tempoyak curry, several slices of tempeh, and even a homemade ice-blended minty lime juice.
Aida decides to read Rose’s memories while I tuck in, but she checks on me every now and then. “Is the sambal too sweet for you?” She asks. The homemaker learned to cook sambal tumis from her mother and sisters, but instead of using just dried chillies like they did, she mixed in the fresh ones to brighten the colour. She also added quail eggs into the sambal, so that she didn’t have to cook another dish for lunch. She asks her mother, who’s watching television, if she likes her take on the sambal tumis. The older lady maintains a poker face, and says something to the point of “ok lah”, much to her daughters’ amusement.
Aida’s mother has been a homemaker and she makes different sambal for different dishes: one for sotong, another for brinjal, and yet another for chicken. Back when she was still a child, Aida picnicked with her mother’s nasi lemak and sambal tumis at the beach. Her mother also cooked laksa to supplement their income, but only when her father was back from sailing to help peddle it in the kampongs.
Her mother still cooks, and Aida likes having her in the kitchen because she finds it “assuring”. She says, “If I hardly cook that dish, and I want it to taste exactly like my mum’s, I will ask her for her opinion on the taste.” As with today’s tempoyak curry, a dish from her mother’s birthplace in Terengganu, Malaysia, Aida prefers to play the assisting role.
Before I leave with their sambal tumis, I ask to what style it belongs. The Muda sisters burst into hysterical laughters, the kind that suggests they have had earlier jokes about it. “Malay and Indian,” one says. “My father is Indian,” Aida informs. “Indian use a lot of onion. Malay use sugar, to make it sweet,” her sister adds.
Name: Aida Muda
A bit about yourself: I am 47 years old Malay homemaker with 3 kids
Type of sambal: Sambal Tumis with Quail Eggs
Level of spiciness: Hot!
Special ingredient(s): Fresh Red Chilli
Your sambal memories:
I love my mom’s sambal tumis. Be it with prawns, quail eggs, ikan bilis. Usually I’ll eat sambal tumis with steaming hot white rice and especially when my mom cooks nasi lemak. I learnt to cook sambal tumis from my mom but I improvised it adding fresh red chilli to brighten up the colour. Sambal tumis reminds me when I was younger when my family frequently arrange a family get-together picnic at East Coast and Changi Beach. Its one of my favourite dishes.
To your sambal recipient:
To Kak Rose, thank you for your delicious sambal Mak Kasek, its very nice. We plan to eat it with white rice or stuff in our roti “bun” freshly baked bun. We will definitely try your recipe.
When the Sambal Tumis Telor is delivered…
“Very nice isn’t it?” says Rose, after reading Aida’s memories. Rose also used to picnic, along Katong and Marine Parade, and Aida’s letter reminds her of her own beach outings. People in the past, she says, could not afford Tupperware, and plastic containers were not common either. To bring food to the beach, her family, and most others, had to lug their pots and pans. “I still remember the bus that goes there. Bus number two. I think it still goes,” she chirps.
Rose heats up Aida’s sambal over the stove and tastes half a spoon of it. “There’s a lot of sugar in there,” she says. “My husband has diabetes so I try not to add sugar to my sambal.” Like Aida, Rose is concern about the side effects of sambal, although they identify different culprits. She quickly assures me that it not an issue, as everyone has their own food preferences. Neither does it dampen her enthusiasm to experiment with Aida’s sambal.
Without realising it herself, Rose turns the sambal into food suitable for picnics. First she cooks it with scramble eggs. Then she stirs another spoonful to an equal amount of mayonnaise. She spreads the mixture on a sliced bread and then stacks tuna, cherry tomatoes and the sambal scramble eggs on top.
Just as how she was when she cooked her own sambal to exchange with Aida, Rose goes into details like she’s hosting a cooking show. She tells me later she’s teaching me like she’s teaching her own daughters.
Rose doesn’t eat any of what she has made. She’s not hungry, she says, because she has eaten her lunch. That said, she carries on making more food.
This time she spreads the sambal on a piece of bread, adds the quail eggs that she has sliced beforehand, the cherry tomatoes, and then gives me “the honour” to add as much grated cheddar as I like. After a few minutes in the toaster, a sambal pizza is ready.
Apart from the original sambal tumis, Rose makes me pack everything home. Maybe because the sambal has more room for tweaking, so that her family, especially her diabetic husband, can enjoy it too.
**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.