Letters by Kenny Mah

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A is for acar

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July 1, 2015

Hey you,

It’s Chinese New Year. This is your first time joining my family for reunion dinner. You’re like one of the family already, my parents tell you. We know this means they think of you as a godson, that’s all. (Unless.)

My eldest niece always has a sly grin for you. (She knows, I whisper.)

She’s working part-time before her university semester starts so the fried wontons aren’t cooked by her this year. Instead she confides in us, Grandpa’s wrapping the wontons and Grandma’s frying them. Oh dear.

We sit together around the round table. There’s steamed fish (a must to ensure we have prosperity in the coming year), halved century eggs with pickled ginger, tomato prawns, chicken rendang, fatt choy hou see (black moss and dried oysters braised in an unctuous gravy), double-boiled chicken soup with sea cucumber, and acar.

It’s the acar that stops you in your track. Not typical Chinese New Year fare, even for Malaysians. My mom’s just picked up a new recipe from a grandaunt or someone she’s teaching line dancing to. (Could well be the same person.) The trick is to slice the carrots just so, and to stuff the large chilies with ha mai (dried shrimp). It’s delicious, you tell her.

Of course, she asks you to have some more. You do.

Me, I just stick the chicken rendang, which actually tastes great. I’m never too polite to refuse food I dislike.

A month or so later, my mom calls. She asks me if you’ve opened the jar of acar she’s given you. I look at you and the terrified look on your face. The jar is still in the fridge. Do I lie to save your skin?

He’s just waiting for the right moment to open it, I say. You’re just waiting for it to go bad, more likely, I think. My mom chirps happily, There’s no need to wait, finish it and I can make more. And it keeps beautifully for months in the fridge, so make sure he finishes every last bit.

After my mom gets off the phone, I deliver the bad news. And no, I’m not helping you with the acar. You’re family now. Time you learn how to say no to mom’s experiments, baby.

Yours always and always,

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