Flying out of Australia I sat next to a man called Ron. I never quite know how to be when I’m on the plane next to someone. I find it difficult to ignore the fact that I’ll be spending the next few hours of my life alongside them. Should I fall into the reserved custom of silent recognition of the other and nothing more? Or can I shine a light on the fact that in one way or another we’re two people meeting, and name it up? In this instance, I shone the light, curious to see what might unfold.

I introduced myself and started a conversation with Ron. We talked about what our plans were, why we were flying to Malaysia, and what our lives comprised of back in Melbourne. For Ron, he was flying to Malaysia to see his family before heading off to Russia for a holiday. For me, I was heading to Malaysia en route to go visit my own family back in China. The conversation continued, and Ron turned out to be a lovely man full of stories he was willing to share and explore. As the hours passed we talked about music, art therapy, Malaysia, China, family, culture, heritage, work, passion, and life in general. I talked about how I was heading to China to go visit my family but also, to do so much more than that. I talked about the Cultural Revolution and about how destructive that had been not only to my family’s past, but also to China’s collective rich cultural history. I talked about my grand plan of how I wanted to ride a bicycle to all of the provinces in the future, finding and documenting the lost trades of the land of my ancestors. I talked about how I regretted not identifying more with my birthplace and my heritage until now, and how it was beginning to feel like it was too late. Both of my grandfathers had already passed and my chance to speak to them about everything from my childhood to our family to their experiences had slipped out of my grasp. I talked about how a lot of young Chinese people don’t seem to value the traditional skills of their forefathers but rather seem to prize capitalism, consumerism and progress, and how I felt like without the passing down of skills, trades and stories we were facing a tremendous loss in the documentation of our cultural history. And I talked about how I wanted and needed to start to get to know China better in order to understand some deeper and more obscure part of myself.

Ron talked about his passion for classical music having played at a very advanced level back in Melbourne. He talked about how classical music was not only a beautiful art form but also a great way to get to know and understand the world. He followed his passion to Europe where he studied German, French and Italian so that he could have a better understanding of the compositions that came out of those countries. Ron also talked about food, explaining that his mother was an incredible cook. He described a Malaysian dish she would always make, of sticky glutinous rice with various fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. She would spend the whole day slaving over this dish. Of course, as a child Ron was also be coopted into helping out too – his job would always be to help her make the rice parcels and to be the watchful eye adding water every 30 minutes to the boiling pot as they cooked. His mother was Peranakan Chinese, and her culture and her cooking encompassed the rich melting pot of both Malay and the Hokkien cultures. Ron was really drawn to the complexity of the Peranakan culture, and listening to him talk about his roots in Malaysia and his life in Europe, I also saw him creating his own unique fusion of cultures within.

Eventually we paused for a bit and I stopped to think about what was happening. Here we were, two people from different parts of the world, sharing the stories of our lives. This is exactly what I wanted, and this was part of my plan for my trip to China – to engage in rich and meaningful conversations with people off of the street about their relationship to their culture, whether that was in the form of art or cuisine or a relationship to the land. I was hungry for stories, and here I was being fed. I wanted to commemorate this, to remember it, and so I plucked up the courage to ask Ron if he would be willing to share a recipe from his mother’s legendary home kitchen with me. He laughed, and agreed, very willingly approaching the delicate task of putting into words and into finite details what was essentially an intuitive recipe, passed down throughout generations in his family. And so thanks to Ron, here is a recipe for his mother’s Peranakan sambal. And thanks to this recipe, here is the beginning of many more adventures and stories to be had.

Ron’s mum’s Peranakan sambal (as dictated by Ron off of the top of his head and as documented by Angela)

In a mortar and pestle combine a small amount of shrimp (belachan) paste with some chopped fresh red chillies, dried red chillies (previously soaked in water, then fried in oil), and a handful of finely chopped shallots. The quantities are not exact and you will most likely need to go by estimation, taste and trial and error. When you’ve got the quantity that you want, pound it all until it’s a very fine paste. You may add some lime juice at this point if you like. Then fry up the sambal paste until it’s very fragrant – you’ll know because the smell will fill the whole house. Ron recommends wearing clothes you don’t particularly care about when you make this incredible fragrant paste! At this point the sambal paste is ready.

You can use this paste as the base for many dishes. For example, a popular way to use it is to fry it up with some green beans. Simply fry your beans in some oil, take the beans out, fry up the sambal paste again, and when you start to smell the aroma wafting into the air add your beans again. Voila. 

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