Music from the Mortar

Clunk clunk clunk.  The sharp sound of a clay pestle striking against the mortar startled me.

Nearly every Saturday morning, the sounds of my parents laboring in the kitchen awoke me from my slumber. Still in bed, I wondered, what were Mak and Ba cooking today? Were they mashing peanuts or garlic in the mortar?

Chop chop chop chop chop chop chop chop… with quick staccato strikes, the knife diced vegetables upon the cutting board.  I didn’t have to be awake or have my eyes open to know; Ba was well known as the jong puv (chef, in Khmer) of the family. His fast knife skills, I always envied.

The backyard door creaked opened, then closed.  A moment later, it opened, and closed again.

Splish splash. The kitchen faucet on, I heard Mak washing vegetables. Then the faucet turned off.

Scree. Scree.  A soft grating sound in the background.  Perhaps Mak was grating the ends of long stalks of freshly cut lemon grass from the backyard.

Sizzle, sizzle. Whatever Ba was stir frying, sounded delicious. The crackling of meat upon a well oiled wok, the snap of a wrist, the meat hopping into the air, and landing back into the pan.  I could see Ba working the wok like a conductor waving his baton over an orchestra, dancing to his own rhythm.

~ ~ ~

Mak was too nervous too cook.  It was the last Saturday before Ba’s procedure. One of my aunts suggested we eat out.

“Soapie is in town? And Ba’s going to the hospital soon? We won’t eat out. Let’s eat hot pot,” my other aunt proclaimed.

A few hours later, both aunts arrived with 2 steaming pots of broth, watercress, napa cabbage, mustard greens, mushrooms, beef, fish balls, fish cakes, salmon, and shrimp. And a secret recipe of dipping sauce, of course.

We gathered around the table for dinner. As we leaned over the hot pot, our ladles and chopsticks tangoed like flamingos prancing in a lake. My aunts, uncles, and I shared silly stories. When Ba shared, he laughed a robust, hearty laugh, his eyes wrinkled in happiness.

Spoon held up to my mouth, I rounded my lips, as if to blow the candles out on a birthday cake, ready to make a wish.  Except I was blowing air across my spoon to cool down the warm broth, and wishing that I could savor this moment. The moment when Ba was smiling and sharing openly, when he seemed happy and healthy, when all seemed right in my world.

I wanted to slurp up and swallow the soup, but never lose this taste.  I wanted to fill my belly deep, into its inner most spaces, stuff it full with these memories, and never forget them. I wanted the hot pot to have an infinite depth, where you could never reach the bottom, so our time together, whether it be in the kitchen, or at the table, would never end.

~ ~ ~

Currently listening: Cold – by Magnetic North & Taiyo Na

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6 thoughts on “Music from the Mortar

  1. I love the last line and this post. I can almost smell your parents’ cooking and it’s making me hungry! I wish I can always be with our love ones all the time but I guess that’s hard since we’re moved away from our family.

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