The orange brings me back to my grandparents’ house. It was Kungkung’s favourite fruit. I remember Popo peeling the orange with her wooden knife, with its rind spiralling out perfectly. I liked to play with the spiral rind like it was a spring. Popo did not like eating oranges, she would squint her eyes instantaneously when eating a segment and murmur suān, even if it was not sour. She peeled one for Kungkung every day when he was ill. Kungkung wrote the recipe of a cake called tién pán. It is a traditional cake eaten at Lunar New Year, but his recipe had something more; his had a distinct flavour—the orange peel. I recall boxes of orange peels laid out in the sun for weeks in their backyard. Popo and Kungkung ground the peels and cooked them with sugar. The smell was sharp and tart. It pervaded the kitchen. The making of the cake itself was a day-long event, one of labour and love. They made big batches to share with family, neighbours and friends. Kungkung made tins specifically for these cakes and insisted on cooking over a wood fire, balancing the tins on wooden strips placed in a giant wok. The taste of the orange peel was delicious. My grandparents would also gift oranges to family and friends when visiting them as the orange is a symbol of good fortune. They would go to the market on the same day as the gift had to be fresh. I was taught to never go to anyone’s home empty-handed.
When I smell an orange, all these memories rush to mind. I eat oranges when I feel homesick as the smell makes me feel closer to home. Holding this spherical shape and sensing the smooth skin punctuated with minuscule dimples is comforting. I peel it like Popo—gripping the knife at an angle with my forefinger and thumb pinching the base of the blade and the other fingers looped around the handle, I slide the blade just under the rind and turn the orange slowly.
Popo taught me how to peel an orange.
GRANDPARENTS’ KITCHEN — RIGHT AFTER SCHOOL.
Popo picks an orange from the fruit basket. She opens the tap and scrubs the orange with both hands under running water. Her wooden knife rests on the white plastic plate with the wavy pink edge that every household in our family has a dozen of. She grips her knife at an angle with her forefinger and thumb pinching the base of the blade and the other fingers looped around the handle. She slides the blade just under the rind and turns the orange slowly. The rind spirals out perfectly in one piece. She puts the rind on the plate and puts down the knife on the table. Holding the orange in one hand, she pulls the segments apart piece by piece, leading with her thumb of her other hand. She plates the orange segments next to the rind.
GRANDPARENTS’ LIVING ROOM — RIGHT AFTER POPO PEELED AN ORANGE.
Popo brings the plate to the living room and places it on the coffee table. The room fills with fruit. She smiles.
Popo ine coup ene zoranz. Tonton Michel ine
asté Samedi sa. Manzé Mami.
Ou osi Popo, manze ene bout.
Popo shakes her head and grins.
Non, non, mo pas kontan sa, tro aigre.
Kouma ou kone sa? Li pa aigre li, goute ene ti
bout avek mwa.
Popo takes a piece and bites at the edge of the segment, juice rushes out and spills over her hands, she licks them, squints her eyes instantaneously, and chuckles.
Suān, Mami, suān!
I learn how to make tién pán with my aunt. She heats up a large pan, pours in a bit of oil and adds un livre de sucre blanc. She stirs, gently moving the white sugar granules around, dragging them back and forth, bringing some from the side to the centre of the pan. She stirs as she recalls how Popo liked to practice placing Kungkung’s tins in her giant wok three weeks ahead of making the cake, stabilising them on one another with the aid of wooden strips. The sugar starts to clump together, crystallising into golden rocks, she explains that saem ki donne la couleur dan tién pán, li pou fone net la. She does not stop stirring, the sugar melts, metamorphosing into a dark brown, glistening syrup. She tells me Popo pa mesir delo li, Popo servi bol coq, Popo dir teigne di feu et kan pou met sa la, li brulant, sa pou fer désordre. She fills up the bowl with boiling water, turns off the gas, moves the pan to a cold stove plate, pours in the water and instinctively steps back. The heat from the water infuses the syrup; deafening burbles instantly overwhelm our conversation, big bubbles float to the surface, a sugary steam permeates the kitchen, we inhale, and exhale. The bubbles gradually become smaller and the burbles quieter. She steps forward and gives it a final stir. She pours the syrup in a bowl and puts it to the side.
She weighs the dry ingredients in a deep, large bowl and comments that Popo li, li guet gueté, li met la moitié paquet koum saem. I remember once asking Popo how she knew how much flour to pour in and she said mo koner kan mo gueté kan mo fer, and that I too will know, as I do. I give the jar of orange peel compote to my aunt, and she adds in some spoonfuls. The tangy, sweet smell makes us go mmmmm, ça sent bon. She tastes a little off the spoon and notices that my mum added some mandarin peels this time, not just orange peels, making the flavour more poignant, yi shiong. She adds the bowl of syrup, that has now cooled down, and a bowl of tap water and asks me to keep count of the bowls of water as we go along. She observes that the récipient ene tigit tipti as she begins to carefully mix everything together with her hand. She grabs and breaks the clumps with the tip of her fingers. I wonder how Popo and Kungkung ti p melanz sa ar baton. But my aunt says that when doing it by hand she can kraz ban boule boule la farine la pli bien, kan bat li ar la main pli facil parski c’est une pâte dense.
Although when Popo and Kungkung used the stick to mix, zot ti p travail la pate la pou fer li devenir pli lastik, quand tu manges le gâteau li pli lastik, li pa tro mou, so they knew they had to use the stick.
I tell her it’s the fourth bowl of water as she pours it in and continues to work the dough with her hand. She tells me Kungkung kine apran fer sa, demane demane dimoune, après li fer. She remembers how Kungkung used to be amani, ti bizin bat sa dan so façon, Popo li, li écouter, enfin elle était obligée ein. After the hour of mixing, the dough is now smooth. Using a ladle, she fills up the plastic-lined tins with the dough and places the tins in her stainless-steel steamer.
Many hours have passed, and the cakes are cooked. My aunt lifts the lid, a cloud of steam flows out, a comforting smell rushes through the room. Looking through our foggy glasses, we see golden brown, round tién pán. We remove the tins from the steamer. We take them downstairs to my grandparents’ living room and leave them to rest on the red, round table we had set out earlier. They will be ready in a few week’s time, right before Lunar New Year. My aunt pushes the coffee table closer to the sofa so we can move around the living room more easily. She looks at the bare sofa, she sighs and says she still needs to get new covers for it.
I still can’t bring myself to sit on that sofa.