Scent - The curving road to my grandmother's little farm

Scent - The curving road to my grandmother's little farm

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

Seeing our maternal grandparents wasn’t an everyday occurrence. They lived out of town in the hills and, though the distance to their little estate probably wasn’t that great, it seemed a major excursion. The keen excitement that I felt was in anticipation of both the journey and what I expected to find at the end.

The road to my grandmother’s house was very quiet in those days. There were not many other homes on it, so the trip felt like an expedition through territory that very few knew and this fuelled my excitement. The road was narrow and arced uphill at a steep gradient with many sharp turns. I had a tendency to car sickness, so learned to prevent dizziness by focusing on the interesting things I could spot through the window. I loved to imagine the jungle was slowly covering all traces of human encroachment (creepers seemed to start growing as soon as anyone even thought of abandoning their house). As we sped by in the car, I imagined the smell of the green-ness I could see, an overpowering odour of energy and power suggested by the hidden, but very apparent, strength of the vegetation. The trees I remember seemed to have oversized leaves, which made no sense to me. Sometimes these peculiarly unbalanced trees bore familiar fruits, as pointed out by the adults sitting in the front.

On our arrival, we were always warmly greeted by my grandparents. Their little house was in the middle of the estate. I have the impression (perhaps my present-day imagination is intruding here?) that highly active vegetation had taken over much of their land. It always seemed dimly lit with trees and creepers blocking out light, giving the atmosphere a damp and fertile air. My grandparents were, in my eyes, expert growers of all types of fruits and vegetables. Small plots of land were deliberately allocated to different fruits and vegetables, all being things they enjoyed eating. Here were banana trees bearing heavy loads of ripening bananas; I would run up to them and scrunch up the leaves, the smell reminding me of green banana skin. Over there was a stand of papaya trees, tall lean trunks with leafy limbs sprouting at the top and the oddly surprising sight of embryonic green papaya-shaped fruit hidden among the foliage. I wondered if these had the same peculiar combination of smells I found in the ripe fruit: rotting flesh with an arresting floral fragrance coming through. On the perimeter, trellises supported climbing plants: snake beans, my grandfather indicated to me. Leaf vegetables were arrayed in their individual plots.

We would gradually proceed into the little house for refreshments. It was one of the old-style dwellings and parts of it still had an earthen floor. The smell was inviting (strange as it was for me to see earth as a floor cover) and it was a much-loved home. One of the things I was most excited to find out was what treats (kuih) my grandmother might have made for our visit. She was an expert at many of the Nyonya and Chinese sweets. She knew how much I loved the deep-fried pastries filled with coconut and gula melaka and never failed to make sure there were some ready whenever I visited. At that time, these seemed the most intricately shaped pastries I could ever hope to encounter: tiny semi-circular pouches with finely pleated edges. The thin pastry was extremely crisp and the shredded coconut filling delicately moistened with palm sugar. I recall very clearly the scent of those pastries: the richness of coconut oil combined with lard for deep-frying. This was a smell that held promise for stimulating the sense of taste also, offering a salty-sweet pastry and satisfyingly sweet filling. My recall of the smell of those coconut pastries holds the memory of my history with my grandmother — a very precious intangible. To this day I never fail to think of her when I come across anything delicately wrought, and the evocation of emotion through scent is an important consideration for me.

Recipes in this Chapter

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