by Nicole Seah
I used to despise the
Overly sweet teh-tarik, warm in the already
Overbearing heat of Singapore, drowsy
Milky brown in a dirty mug
Turned my nose up at the kway teow, sizzling softly
In it’s pan, familiarity bred contempt for the
Rolling tabletops of Chinese cuisine, for the simple
Laksa that my family had made
Gritty, thick, spicy, fragrant.
The hawker centers were freckled with
Bodies pressing up against one another, close enough to
Inhale a person’s shape
Babbling into the ruckus of dialects
Uncles in stained singlets howling at the crowd
And I couldn’t wait to get away
Freedom was a cuisine I hadn’t tasted.
But having left, I suddenly
Began crave the smoke from the satay or
The rojak that the hawkers made, tingling heat, sour,
Suddenly memories of sweet Gula Melaka
floods my mouth and
I realize I miss the kueh, doused in coconut milk, nutty,
Wolfing down rounds of kaya toast
like I haven’t eaten for days
greasy thumbs from pressing
The prata, crisp, into the opaque curry
Or lemony fingers from after
Chilli crab, heat lingering like vapor trails from
Airplanes in our cloudless sky.
I remember my mother’s hands,
Tanned and nimble, spiders on the tabletops
Rolling the popiah, slotting each vegetable in expertly,
Jicama, crunch, smear the blackness of sugar sauce
Like paint on a canvas, the thin papers of wheat
Rumbling on the plate, on the palate.
The bowls of zhou from the hawkers when I was sick,
Soothing, warm, simple.
I realize I missed it; sweet, spicy
Mother’s fingers tapping a tune on the kitchen counters,
Can you taste laughter in our orange kitchen?
Is it the durian’s pungent linger in my nose?
Whatever it is, it tastes like: