The Empty Dumpling

作者: Shoba Vias

I believe walking into someone’s kitchen reveals almost everything about them. How wobbly woks are arranged against a wall, range of kitchen gadgets and my personal favourite, their selection of herbs and spices. A kitchen is indeed the window into one’s being that even a Rorschach test can’t unfold.

As I stood at the foyer of Jimm’s home, I felt the end of a 25-year-old friendship. COVID-19 had reared its ugly head and with a fragile body already raging against thyroid cancer, it was all too much for her. I was picked to complete the very immediate task for a deceased person – that of closing forgotten windows and tightening drippy taps. I saved the most difficult task for the last – closing up Jimm’s kitchen. I knew I would be walking into the inner workings of Jimm’s heart and soul and discovering what her next culinary dish would have been. Suddenly, a part of me felt like a brazen intruder.

On her marbled half-moon table, I found these items arranged, almost artistically: a jar of meticulously cubed winter melon sugar, a puggy urn of tauchu and a glass beaker filled with homemade blue pea flower juice. Alongside it, a wooden bowl covered lightly with an embroidered dolly. The curious cook in me just had to take a whiff. The earthy and pungent smell of ground coriander seeds and white pepper met me and sent me into a splutter of sneezes. As I moved instinctively towards the breezy air well, a faint smell of sweet dried grass permeated the area and as I looked down the final piece of this culinary puzzle sadly presented itself. A bundle of plucked pandan leaves placed neatly in a basket. Yes, around me was all the makings of the ultimate Peranakan comfort food - Nyonya Chang. Had Jimm not met her Creator on the 28th of June 2021, we would have already had out yearly “Chang Chang” session.

Jimm was not easy to define. Her hair was always perfectly coiffed but she would greet you with a dangling Dunhill Red cigarette between her red lips. She could deliver every racy joke ever made but did not tolerate any women being unjustly treated. Knew all her prayers by heart but never judged. She was however defined by her love for all things diverse and this was seen in the friends she kept and the activities she decided to fill her life with. 

This was how our yearly Chang-Chang session came to be. Don’t get me wrong: this session was not a masak-masak session where we learnt how to make Nyonya Chang. Her Nyonya Chang recipe went with her.

This session was Jimm and us. ‘Us’ being a group of up-and-coming ladies who were at different ages and stages of life. The only element we had in common was our friendship with Jimm. What made this session extra special was that Jimm made this batch of Nyonya Chang filled with what we wanted. Justine had the traditional option and I loved an empty dumpling eaten with dollop of Jimm’s kaya or brown sugar.

Unwrapping the dumpling’s bamboo and pandan leaves together, side by side with our bangles – Indian gold, Chinese jade, Punjabi Kara and Iban beads – hitting our plates musically, we really looked like the ladies from a Lat cartoon. We laughed and learnt from each other in balanced intervals. It was diversity at its purest and best.

Then, just when you thought that was all to Jimm, another side emerges. Jimm was a very keen observer of human nature. She could read you like a book.

During the 1999 Chang-Chang session, Jimm asked me a question.

“Shoba, lu ai nyonya chang boh?”

I was confused. Why did Jimm ask me what I wanted in my dumpling? She knew the answer to this question.

“Jimm. I’ve not changed at all. I want exactly the same thing. I still want your dumplings with nothing in it,” I say systematically.

As she walked towards me, I noticed that she looked at me with cautious concern. As she placed the plate of empty dumplings in front of me, she spoke the ten words that would Change Everything.

“Shoba my love. Year in and year out, you ask for the same empty dumplings. In life, please don’t get use to asking for nothing.”

Looking back, I have come to believe that Jimm shared those words of wisdom with me for a reason. In 1999, I was too comfortable – my job at that time was too easy and I was happy to just ask for nothing and carry on. I was living a life devoid of any passion and mostly importantly no significance to myself and the community I was part of. Jimm’s message became seared in my mind and at the end of 2020, when COVID-19 was at its peak – I resigned from my comfortable job and pursued my current job which fills me with a sense of wonder, passion and personal responsibility I never thought possible. My life is now filling up with diverse friends and opportunities.

Yeap Sipp Jimm, thank you for teaching me that a life filled with diversity and love is a life worth living and leaving behind.

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