The Sum of Life’s Troubles Makes a Whole Damn Dish | Nuraliah Norasid | Granta

The Sum of Life’s Troubles Makes a Whole Damn Dish

Nuraliah Norasid

Leceh I: rumit, sulit – not easy, sukar.


Every calendar year around the second-last week of Ramadan, I mark out two to three days for ‘kuih duty’, and a day, usually right before the start of Syawal, for ‘Raya cooking’. ‘Kuih duty’ is as it sounds: the rote, production-line tasks of making kuih for Hari Raya, which is also known as Eid. It involves the making and baking of the usual Raya fare: suji, tart, semperit (which my mum calls dahlia for its resemblance to the namesake flower), and makmur, the leaf-shaped ones covered in powdered sugar, being the ones we often make at home.

When I was younger and still in school, my mother did the hard work of mixing, kneading, and filling-making before roping me in for the rest of the process.

For kuih tart, my mother shapes the dough using a special cookie cutter that punches out bases in the shape of flowers, with divots in the centre where I press in little balls of pineapple filling. My system is to prep these as my mother fills the oven tray with the bases before pressing them in right before they are baked.

For kuih makmur, we fill green-dyed dough with crushed peanuts mixed with coarse sugar before shaping them into ovates. The key to the kuih’s taste and presentation are the tiny veins that we create with numerous little pinches of a tweezer-like clip with serrated tips. The grooves made by these tips helped to hold the powdered sugar that we dust over the kuih once they have cooled enough.

Kuih dahlia involves pressing dough through a mould made up of a tube with a star polygon cut out at the bottom. Later, the moulded dough is decorated with bits of chopped maraschino cherries or edible pearl balls – extra steps that make it ‘berseri’, beautiful, presentable.

I was one of those children who liked playing little games like digging my fingernail into my skin to see how fast the crescent dips bounced back out, or putting my fingers into pen caps and pretending to have long nails or laser shooters on my fingertips. I had to learn the hard way not to push my fingers through the bottom of the kuih dahlia tube if I wanted to keep the skin on them.

My mother, unsympathetic, only said to me, ‘In the past, the semperit mould does not even have a plunger. We use our thumbs! And you don’t know how painful that is.’

The mould also used to be made of metal.

Suji thankfully just involves shaping dough into balls which are ‘not too big, not too small’ – just one of the many agak-agak units of measurement used by Malay mothers when it comes to cooking.

When I was a child right up to my early teenage years, much of the most repetitive production work in kuih-making fell to me. My mother handled the baking with a small convection oven of unknown brand. My mother had saved it from a trash pile, and restored it herself, repairing the circuitry and disinfecting it inside and out. But though it worked, it needed constant monitoring to ensure the kuih we were baking did not burn. Only she knew just when to switch the top and bottom trays, and when to turn the temperature down and add a few extra minutes to the cooking time as the kitchen filled with the warm smell of Planta- or butter-infused magic, ‘so fast to eat, but so long to make’, as is the case with so much of Malay food.

The old oven has since been replaced by a bigger and better model, bought brand new from Giant. However, I will always remember that old one with the off-white metal body, black knobs, and the rusted insides with an upper heating element that didn’t work. Funny the attachment we have to old things, especially when one such old thing became the reason we ate better that month.

Now that my mother is older, and her medical conditions have begun to take a toll on her, I have become the muscle of the operation, folding butter and egg yolks into the flour and kneading all two kilograms of dough until the sides of the banged-up metal basin my mother has had since I was seven or eight are completely clean. But the role of who shapes, decorates and bakes remains much the same. As does how warm the kitchen gets, given that the only source of reprieve is the desktop fan my father bought from a tiny ‘kaki lima’ home goods shop.

I used to dislike kuih duty, because the steps are all so tedious, because there must be easier ways to do it: ‘Why must we make it look so nice? No one ever comes to our house for Hari Raya. And if we sell, people are just going to eat it and not look at it.’

And because I was, and still am, the only child who has to do it. While I pinched and pressed and rolled, the warmth from the mixing and baking casting a buttery sheen on my face, flour and powdered sugar streaking the front of my clothes, the gunshots and battle cries from my brothers’ computer games would drift into the kitchen, taunting me with what I was missing.



Leceh II: [kiasan] – figuratively – kurang nilai, without value, without use


I felt the injustice keenly.

From the age of seven my father dressed me like a boy, because it was ‘safer’ for me – even though it invited no end of men, especially Malay men, to ask each other, ‘Itu perempuan ke, lelaki?’ (‘Is that a boy or a girl?’). They spoke loudly, as if I was hard of hearing, and women would be alarmed that ‘such a big boy’ was still allowed into ladies’ bathrooms. The funny thing was, anytime I acted in ways that my parents deemed to be too much like a ‘boy’ – such as playing rugby with the neighbour boys along the corridors of the HDB blocks, whistling or laughing too loudly, wanting to swim or ride the bicycle or play computer games – I would be disciplined. Properly and thoroughly.

By age fifteen, I was left out of family outings because my father did not want men looking at me. While my family was out playing soccer or badminton at the neighbourhood park, I had to vacuum and mop the house, at the risk of an ass-whooping and grounding if the house was not spick and span by the time everyone got home. I was only allowed to leave to go to school, nearby shops and, later, work.

I took on my first job as a packer at a food factory to help my family financially while I waited for my O Level results. But all expeditions out of the house, even for work, could only be made after the clothes I was wearing had passed inspection:

– Sleeves: not too short as to show my (still unshaved) armpits.

– Pants: nothing above the ankles.

– Necklines: should not expose my décolletage, or collarbones.

– Tops: long enough to cover the derrière, and preferably the tops of the thighs as well.

– Everything: nothing hugging the body, nothing showing a womanly shape.

On the rare occasion when I could take part in family outings, I had to stand in just the right way to ensure my still-growing breasts did not show through the printed T-shirts I wore (because bras show through plain clothing), or the Rosie Phua-style blouses my parents bought for me from the market shops in Chong Pang. It was a balancing act of being engaged with the rest of my family (because sullenness was punished), ensuring my younger siblings did not cry and/or run into traffic (because that is what you have older daughters for), and not drawing any kind of attention to myself. The outdoors was a zone of negotiation – constant mild adjustments, always reading the space and people around me as I cast sidelong glances at my parents, just in case.

Perhaps all of this really was intended to protect me. From that pakcik on the bus when I was six, the one with the orange-brown shades, the whistling lips and the drifting fingers. From the delivery driver at the factory who tried to kiss me, even though he was twice my age and married with a kid. Or the one who kept hugging me and tried to carry me off in his lorry out of jest. From the man who was on every MRT ride I took to university, who tossed me scraps of paper with his number and name, and who was the reason I had to ask my brother, still only a boy, but already big and fierce-looking, to wait for me at the HDB block’s void deck when I got home. From the uncle who I somehow always met on my runs, even when I changed routes and schedules, and who would bump into me laughing, almost every time. From the man who reached out through the gap between the seats and the bus window to cop a feel, and who gave me a reason to draw the Swiss army knife I had been carrying for the sense of security that it gave me.



Leceh III: meleleh dan melekat – sticky, drippy


I like to think that I am not a troublesome person. Loud, maybe, as anyone who has gone to secondary school with me could tell you (and, goodness, if secondary school isn’t the place where toxic and damaging ideas of gender are perpetuated and practiced most). But troublesome? Not really.

I am non-troublesome in the way that I don’t tell counter staff at fast food joints or cafes when they get my order wrong and that I don’t call the police on people revving their modified sports cars along the side road below me at 2.00 a.m. on a work night. Non-troublesome in the way that I rarely ask questions in classes or seminars even when I am completely lost about a topic, bringing this same attitude into the workplace where I ask little, working just that bit harder to figure things out on my own.

In many life matters, I am not one to make a fuss; approach things with what I feel is a truly Singaporean ‘don’t rock the boat’ predisposition. As such with my family, I have become the unofficial third parent, taking on all major financial and caregiving responsibilities, as well as being the one everyone turns to when my mother is unwell. No complaints, I just roll up my sleeves and get to work, the way I have seen my mother do so often.

Growing up in a restrictive and volatile household does not exactly teach you about individual rights, or that you have any. Rather it teaches you to be self-sufficient, and to make yourself as small a target as you can. You learn to defuse situations, and to divert attention quickly. You also learn to work within a system, pushing the boundaries just far enough to get what you want without causing trouble, or having to explain yourself. Creating space to dance and dream, if you will, while the shackles and muzzles biting into your skin remind you of where you really are.

However, that is not to say the challenge is specific only to me. No matter the setting – familial, public, professional, political – women are generally expected (and feel that they ought) not to be troublesome, not to be loud or difficult, or have too many things to say. Not to create a scene, not to be confrontational, not to rock the sad, leaking perahu we are forced to sit in. Not to negatively impact the image of womanly deportment and decorum. Not to expose ignominy within their community’s moral and/or religious imagery. Break any of these expectations – and God knows so many of us have – and you will be labelled a difficult woman, an ‘angry brown woman’, a damned woman. At best, a woman’s leceh-ness is viewed with deprecating humour. The worst is often deathly horrifying.

Given all of that, and the need to just keep doing the work of paying the bills and taking care of family, the natural state of being for me is to allow myself to be swept up in the inertia of the day-to-day.

So, here, a little hard-pressed, I ask my partner: ‘Have I ever gotten into trouble?’

‘No’, he says, almost too quickly.

But I have, even if he doesn’t know it. I have blatantly pressed every button on the lift, in response to a rude person. Looked them straight in the eyes while I did it, as they stared back, shocked and incensed. I’ve ‘accidentally’ stabbed a man’s thigh with a fountain pen because he was manspreading on the train. Made as if to choke a teacher for her bias towards the boys in the class. Built a bonfire of newspapers on the staircase landing and watched it with panicked glee. Climbed to the fourth floor of my block to drop plastic bags filled with water on the people below.

Went to investigate sounds of domestic violence I heard walking just below an apartment block, only to be told by the couple’s friends or relatives that what was happening was normal – the sound of breaking glass, of shouting, crying, something being dragged and thrown hard against the wall.

I wish I had been more troublesome.



Leceh IV: The sum of inconvenience


While chopping up onions and garlic to blend for the Hari Raya rendang session, I asked my mother, ‘Back then during the kampung times, are there blenders?’

My mother often talks about her life, about happier times in Kampung Chantek, where the Bukit Timah Satellite Earth Station is now. Remembering helps take her mind off of her illness, and the difficulties and violence of most of her adult life.

‘Have. But not all houses in my kampung have electricity.’

‘So how do you make rendang?’ I tried to do that trick of keeping the butt of the onions intact to prevent from tearing. ‘With all these things to blend?’

Nonchalantly, my mother replied, ‘Grind it all by hand, using the batu giling.’

‘Each ingredient, one by one?’ I asked, starting to get a little horrified.

‘Yes, each one by hand.’

‘So leceh.’

‘Yes, indeed leceh. That is why the food tastes better back then.’

We talked about the grated coconut in kelapa kerisik, a key ingredient in rendang. In the past, I had helped my mother make it by toasting the shredded coconut until tawny brown over low heat, before grinding them with mortar and pestle until the oil emerges. These days, to save time, my mother buys kerisik ready-made from the store. And there is still a sense that the rendang, though still good, does not taste quite the way it should do.

In thinking about rendang, about how every Raya dish and kuih is a leceh labour of love, I think about trouble and its avoidance. And the little troubles we tend to avoid just because it is easier – at work, around racist colleagues; at family gatherings watching your mother and sisters putter about in the kitchen; when you’re ‘with the boys’ and those pictures are circulating in the group chat. These avoidances seem harmless until they aren’t, and by then the inertia of not wanting to be troublesome, be leceh, might mean standing by or walking away when you really should be helping. It might mean sitting with the taste of not-quite-right always on the tongue, always burning like a rash at the back of your eyes.

I am still not the most troublesome person, though more and more people are starting to tell me otherwise. My partner calls my fighting tone my ‘frank and professional’ voice and my ‘teacher’s voice’, and I am less and less the person who would not send food back, and more and more the one to press all the lift buttons while engaging in a stare-down. After all, the sum of the trouble you take makes the whole damn, glorious dish.


When The Arts House – a literature centre running from the former parliament building at the heart of Singapore – wanted to create a different kind of library, one grouped by themes and leaps of the imagination, rather than any readily searchable order, they chose the name ‘The Troublesome Library’. Like all libraries, it is a place where you have to ‘take the trouble’ to find insights and wonder. But trouble finds people everywhere (not only in libraries), in all kinds of shapes and at all kinds of moments, and is a kind of theme of its own. In parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Arts House supported a literary series on the theme of trouble.

Image © Marco Verch

Nuraliah Norasid

More about the author →