I think about the Chinatown in Boston where I'd stock up Asian supplies I could never find from the online grocer: dumpling skins, fresh egg noodles, sauces and vegetables. The fresh produce section would smell of bean sprouts, or mung bean sprouts as they call it. The place was crammed with old folks scrutinizing yellow crunchy pears for spots, workers packing newly delivered vegetables into quantities that could easily feed a family of eight, and then there's me - the one who felt neither here nor there.
The smell of bean sprouts also transports me back to the old wet market in Muar during the early 1980s. It sat by the Muar river and would sometimes stink of mud by the riverbank even during late morning. Rainy days were the best since the market would be really, really wet. And I could see the water in the river more easily as it rose towards the vacant section that was also the edge of the building almost protruding above water level.
Somewhere between the fruits and the fish section was this stall selling soybean products and fresh noodles. Those days, blocks of beancurd were stored - covered in water - in large polystyrene boxes. Bean sprouts were also kept afloat in buckets of water, which until now is still the ideal way to prevent breaking the sprouts as you scoop them with your fingers wide apart. My mother would go to that stall during her weekly groceries run (Malaysians call it "marketing") especially so when laksa or some major noodle dish was on the menu that day.
I miss those times as it was then I had my parents to myself. Somehow my older brothers never came along to the market. My mother was the buyer. My father shuttled between the stalls and his car to load up what mum had bought. Me, I just followed wherever mum went, fantasizing about my own vegetable stall. Sometimes I got told off (by ahem!) for standing in the middle of nowhere, potentially blocking some people or risked being knocked or pushed by others. It was also then that I developed my sense of "positioning" in public places, which later in my adult life, made me relate people who block escalators and elevator doors to being plain stupid. Their mothers probably never taught them like mine did.
Finally, waving my hand through the sprouts this morning, I thought of my late maternal grandmother. She passed on two months after we arrived in Cambridge and I never got to be at her farewell party. I only remember telling her in our last phone conversation (it was a monologue actually.. as she wasn't able to talk) to not be afraid when she sees Jesus and to remember us. I never knew if she heard me. I could only hear the ventilator.
Life wasn't easy on my grandma but she was tougher. When I was a kid, I would wander around the kitchen whenever she prepped for lunch. It was fun because she would let me peel and chop garlic and shallots, wash and pick spinach leaves, sweet potato leaves, or kangkong (water convolvulus) leaves. She also taught me to wash bean sprouts without causing further damage. The sprouts are not pretty once broken.
Back then, there was also a soybean products vendor who rode his bicycle around the housing estates. He sold both firm and soft tofu, tofu puffs, bean sprouts, kuey teow and yellow noodles too. We would call him "tau kwa pek". And whenever he is heard approaching our house, my brothers and I would alert our grandma, teasing her that her boyfriend was here. She'd be annoyed on her way out to get her "tau kwa" and we'd be laughing. Years later, our dear "tau kwa pek" upgraded to a motorbike with a metal compartment strapped behind his seat, and eventually one with a sidecar as storage for all his products. Then he stopped coming by.
So there. Fond memories in my life all thanks to just a basinful of bean sprouts. Which probably explains why I love spending hours in the kitchen. Surely you must know, in the kitchen, one doesn't just cook.