Pulut Hitam (Black Rice Pudding)
From her nenek's kitchen, Sofia Osborne shares a recipe for holding her grandmother close.
1 cup black glutinous rice
4 cups water
2 pandan leaves
1 cup palm sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup coconut milk
1. Take the old elevator to the sixth floor. Knock on your grandparents’ door. Knock again, louder.
When your nenek finally opens the door, smile and ask how she is. Bend down and hug her, the only person in the world shorter than you. Savour the smell of her, dried flowers and spices you can’t place. Let her press her nose against your cheek and inhale. This is her way of kissing you.
Squeeze past the fridge and examine the magnets covering the dull white doors. They spell out cities like a road map: Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Sydney, Beijing. Think about where your nenek came from—where a part of you came from—and how far she travelled to end up here. Think of her at sixteen, a new wife, a baby only a few years away. How different her life was from yours, across the ocean, across time.
Sit on the cracked leather couch in front of the TV for a while. The volume is too loud, but watch the news with her anyway. Out of the corner of your eye, see her pull open the tab of her pill calendar. It’s a Tuesday. There are so many colours and they disappear down her throat, chased with apple juice. Watch the way she laughs, a mischievous kid. Laugh with her even if you don’t understand.
Let your nenek feed you: slices of mango, green grapes, cashews, Sunny D. This is how she tells you that she loves you.
2. In the kitchen, put a pot on the stove. Help your nenek pull the gigantic plastic bag of black glutinous rice from the cabinet. You’re not sure why it’s called black rice when it’s really purple, dark purple, flecked with red and orange as if it’s been streaked by the sun. Some people call it forbidden rice because in ancient China black rice was reserved for the aristocracy. But here, in your nenek’s kitchen, it is plentiful.
Add a scoop of the black rice to the pot and combine it with the water. Your nenek knows the recipe in her bones, not bothering to measure, but you dutifully write down the ratio: four cups of water for every cup of rice.
Fold the pandan leaves and tie them into a knot. Add them to the pot. The tropical plant looks like a stunted palm tree. Its long leaves are earthy and fragrant, like grass and vanilla, and they’re used in the Southeast Asian desserts that you are just starting to discover. You especially love pandan crêpes, which are the beautiful pale green of a clover. Your mom fills them with sweet coconut filling and rolls them up like spring rolls and you eat them as fast as she can shape them, still warm in your mouth. Your mom tells you their name: kueh dadar.
You used to think of dessert as the domain of white people: French pastries, Italian cakes, apple pie, an ex-boyfriend’s grandma making chocolate chip cookies. You didn’t used to think of your own nenek’s sweets as beautiful. But then you grew older and you saw the rich purple of black rice pudding. You saw the kueh talam, vibrant green and white; pulut tai tai, marbled blue like the ocean; rainbow kueh lapis. Your mom tells you that lapis means layers. Layers you can start to pull apart.
You don’t think you’ve ever seen a pandan plant in real life, and the realization makes you feel hollow. It reminds you of how you felt trying rambutan, the fruit that your mom and nenek love to eat by the bagful. Bright red spiky balls, your mom pulls them open with her long nails. The thick pieces of the shell peel away and reveal a fleshy white centre covering a seed. You nibble away at it. It tastes like a sweet grape. You marvel at the amount of work your mom and nenek put into eating this, and the way it makes them smile like kids.
Your mom tells you that in Singapore, rambutan trees grow everywhere. You imagined the trees would be small, but when you see photos of them they are sprawling, all dark green leaves and the pinkest fruit. Your mother tells you that she used to climb them, and you can see her now, your age, sitting among their sturdy branches, picking rambutans by the bucketful. Sometimes the fruit shows up here in Canada at the Asian grocery store and your mom buys pounds and pounds of them. The shells stack up haphazardly on the kitchen table until she is lost in them; she opens each one like a gift.
3. Let the rice simmer for thirty minutes on low heat, stirring almost constantly for the last fifteen minutes as the mixture thickens. You don’t want it to stick to the bottom of the pot. The starch in the rice causes it to become soupy and then thick, like white people’s rice pudding.
4. Add the palm sugar and salt, mix to dissolve. This should only take about thirty seconds. Palm sugar is called gula melaka in Malay. It’s made from syrup that comes from palm trees. First, they extract the sap from the flower bud of the coconut palm, then the sap is boiled until thick and poured into bamboo tubes where it hardens into blocks. Your mom buys packages of palm sugar that look like buttery yellow moons. You didn’t know that coconut palms had flowers. They are long and yellow, almost like wheat or outstretched fingers.
When people think of Canada they think of maple syrup. And you love maple syrup. It reminds you of fall and waking up to waffles on weekend mornings at your dad’s house. In some ways, maple syrup feels like part of your identity as a Canadian, however prescribed that feeling is. But this identity never felt like it told the whole story of you. And then there is gula melaka, which is lighter and carries the sap of flowers grown on the other side of the world. And it is part of you too. So you watch it dissolve into the pot, sweetening the rice. Are you the rice? Are you the pot?
Your nenek has diabetes. Hence the many-coloured pills. Hence the carton of apple juice pushed to the back of the fridge that she hides from your mom. Her heart is pretty clogged up too. And she can’t breathe well. She loves cooking—food is everything to her. She was a chef in Singapore. Your datuk claimed she catered Elizabeth Taylor’s party, that Richard Nixon has eaten her satays. Whenever you went to her apartment there was something deep frying on the stove, spring rolls and samosas and fried chicken. Food was her livelihood and her love language, her reason for living. Now she has a hard time standing at the stove. As she stirs the thick purple rice, her breath is raggedy. All of this to say, you have a complicated relationship with the palm sugar that runs through her veins.
5. When the pudding is glossy and thick, ladle it into bowls and top it with a generous amount of coconut milk. Add a few shakes of salt to bring out the sweetness. As the coconut milk mixes in, the pudding brightens to a light purple, the colour of the sky before a sunset. When you take a bite, you feel it spreading through you, warm and soothing and soft.
6. Say “Terima kasih, nenek. Sedap.” Watch how she laughs. Sedap means delicious, and it’s the word you most associate with your nenek. She loves it when you speak Malay, though you only know a few words. When she is cooking for you, that is when you try—when you stumble through her language, to tell her thank you.
7. When your bowls are empty, put away the leftover black rice pudding in an old Becel container. Pour the coconut milk into a Smucker’s jar. Whenever you visit her, you eat it every night for a week until your stomach aches.
8. When your mom picks you up, listen to her conversation with nenek. You would like to eavesdrop but you can’t understand. Sometimes you recognize the Malay words for one or food, but mostly you watch your nenek’s hands swatting your mom’s away from the stove, your mom putting groceries in the fridge, doing the dishes.
Your mom is a private person. She’s lived all over the world and had great adventures and found her home here. A mother who insists she’s not a “tiger mom,” but pushes you toward success as hard as she can. A Malay-Singaporean woman who wants you to be a Canadian girl, who didn’t teach you Malay or feed you laksa.
In this kitchen with the two of them, you feel intimidated. They were both born in the year of the tiger, twenty-four years apart, and their fierceness, their strength and independence, has shaped their lives. You can feel them spark against each other, and you’re not sure how you fit into this circuit, this matrilineage.
9. Repeat steps one through eight as many times as you can. Every sick day you stay home from school, every holiday you come back from university. Savour it.
10. And before you go, hug nenek again. Hug her as hard as you can, for as long as you can. Please, for me. Tell her that you love her and that you’ll always love her. Tell her terima kasih again. Memorize the way she laughs. Memorize the way she looks in her apron and her slippers with her wisps of dyed black hair and her spoon in the air waving you out the door. Please remember.
11. And then, one day, lie on your bed and let yourself cry. Help your mom decide which clothes to keep. Help her go through the photos and news articles. The old passports and documents and photocopies. Make room under the bed for the boxes. Cry again, because she passed on so quickly that you didn’t get to say goodbye.
12. You will just have to wait. Wait to feel better, or at least okay.
13. Keep waiting.
14. It will be a while before you make black rice pudding again. Because you’re not ready to be reminded of nenek. And because your mom never really made Malay food at home growing up, not when nenek was the expert. For a time the boxes will stay under the bed and you will be haunted by all the things you never got to ask nenek, all the conversations you never had.
And then your mom will start to talk about Singapore. You will be living together again for a time and she will begin to tell you stories about nenek and her childhood. She will buy black rice and palm sugar at the Asian grocery store.
15. Stand with your mom in the kitchen of her house, the house you grew up in, with windows looking out at the Pacific ocean, and imagine for a minute that you can see all the way across the sea. Put on the apron that used to be your nenek’s. Put a pot on the stove, this stove that your nenek stood at so many times. Pull out the small bag of black glutinous rice. Add it to the pot and combine it with water; you remember the ratio.
16. Add the pandan leaves, knotted, and let it all simmer. As you watch the steam rise from the pot, sit down across from your mom at the kitchen table. Ask her about her childhood—the rambutan trees and coconut palms. Ask her whether nenek used to make black rice for her when she was a kid. What else would she make? What was she like?
17. Get up and stir the pudding for the last fifteen minutes while your mom reveals things to you slowly, lapis.
Your mom had a complicated relationship with your nenek, made harder by being her only support in Canada as she grew older and closer to passing. Sometimes you think mothers are the hardest people to see clearly; we colour them so completely with our expectations. But here you can see your mom as a person experiencing loss, connecting with her own mother through the recipes of her childhood. And so when your mom makes rendang for dinner, or her favourite chicken rice, you eat it wholeheartedly. This is her way of opening up to you.
18. As you add the moons of palm sugar and watch them melt, dip a spoon in and taste it. Add more sugar if it’s not sweet enough. Without nenek, it’s a guessing game, and it will never taste quite the same. But it’s your recipe now. Ask your mom to taste it too.
19. It may not be the perfect consistency, not as glossy as you wanted, but ladle it out into a bowl. Add the coconut milk and salt, mix it together into that light purple. As you look at it now, you think maybe it’s more the colour of dawn than dusk. The rice might be a bit husky or too chewy, the pudding a bit runny, but you made it. And you will keep practicing. It will come with time. ⁂
Sofia Osborne is a Singaporean-Canadian writer, editor and audio producer. She's currently completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in the Tyee, the Narwhal, Passage and This Magazine.