We often hear someone lament, ‘I miss my mother’s cooking’. There is something about our mother’s cooking that stays with us. In all ways positive. In all ways wonderful. I have often wondered if it is the way our taste buds are conditioned. That we think home-made curry, home-cooked fried rice and home-boiled soup are meant to taste a certain way because we grew up tasting them the way they were prepared at home. Which is why we see some food as comfort food. This week, I met a mother who almost personifies comfort food. With something else. Something hot. A bottle of chilli.
She is of course a great cook. Her curry chicken and chilli crab are super. Her rice dumplings are famous. But it is her chilli that defines her special touch with food. Chilli is the added dimension to dishes, a spice to top up the taste. Yet to her family and relatives, her chilli takes centre stage. It is bottled, not in plastic but glass bottle she will insist. Each month, she makes over 15 bottles of chilli. Chilli padi grind to a just-right texture. With a does of garlic and light soya sauce. Still moist, this light orange-red mixture is bottled and stored in the fridge.
Her entire family and relatives swear by this bottle of chilli. Some of them tried to made it themselves. But it was never the same. They would invariably come back to her. Her eldest son told her he would die without her chilli. Every time when he was running low on supply, he would panic. In restaurants and even overseas, her bottle of chilli would occasionally be on standby. Her children told me with enthusiasm bordering on obsession, that her chilli is the mainstay for steamboat and noodles dishes. One of them said he could just eat her chilli with rice. When her eldest son handed me a bottle, I told him I am easy, that I can settle for cut chilli with soya sauce. He just smiled. Weeks later I called him on the pretext of something else, but asked in a by-the-way manner if I could have another bottle. I am now, admittedly, another of her converted fans.
Her bottle of chilli seems to be the same as any. Yet it is different. I cannot put a finger on it. When I finally met her, it all fell into place. She was sitting in a corner. So this is the queen of chilli, I told myself. She is Madam Teo Chai Eng 张彩英, 65 years old, born in Singapore. Her own mother was also a good cook. She comes from a big family of 12 siblings. She made it point to tell me she is close to everyone of them. During the weekdays, she takes care of her grandchildren. Weekends are sometimes spent playing majong with her sisters. With 6 children, her family and extended family allows for big festive gatherings. She cooks a huge feast every second and sixteenth day of the lunar month.
I was told she is always jovial, but her unassuming and easy manner belies a life that has not been easy. From the way she talked about her husband, the way she looked at her children, from their stories about her, I suddenly understood why her chilli is a champion of all chilli. It is not just a bottle of chilli. It is a bottle of love. It is her way of linking her familial threads, her way of holding her family together. Every mother cooks, but Madam Teo does more. Looking at her, I see a diminutive mother figure with the biggest heart. Over thirty years, this heart tirelessly makes that extra effort. So that her family members has a taste they can call home. A taste that connects them. In my heart, I thank her. Not just for letting me taste her chilli. Also for seeing chilli anew. That made with unconditional and boundless love, sometimes a bottle of chilli is all it takes to keep a family together…
‘Wherever I am, the smell of chilli brings me home.’