Half of my village on the eastern side of Java were relatives. One could never be lonely or not feel cared for. A great sense of community felt like the hug of many. Most important, though, was the hug of my mother. Not only did I love her, but I admired her skills, particularly in the kitchen. She was a pure Indonesian cook, cheered loudly in the village on ceremonial days when food is shared and provided to the greater family. Rawon, a strong, rich-tasting traditional goat soup, was her magical dish. Though I did not understand it when I was young, people would tell me how beautiful my mom was, and some even intimated how sexy. She dressed mostly in conservative Western wear, rather than traditional sarongs. Never much make-up; at the most, a little lipstick adorned her.
When she was young, she studied cooking, cleaning, and organizational skills to work in someone’s home. She never did get that kind of job, never needed to, but she applied all those skills in our home.
My father was not a handsome man, but as a very successful contractor from a wealthy family, he could have his pick of women, and he picked my mother. Although I saw him as a good man and one to be respected, he was away for work most of the time. Rumors, again which I did not understand until older, whispered that he was with other women, but that never appeared in our home as an issue. I never saw my mom react, but I believe she was jealous.
We were a well-to-do family with village prestige. Aside from my father’s job, we owned a sugar cane farm. On most days, even when I was very young, I would come home from school and help my mother make dinner, which was eaten around one o'clock in the afternoon. A favorite dish was dried mackerel with vegetables, kidney beans, and green papaya. I was happy to be near her, although she was very disciplined. Things were done Mom’s way. When she said “time to eat,” you must eat. “When she said “time to sleep,” you must go to bed. “Always wash your hands.” “Never eat outside the house.” (Other places are not clean, not even the homes of friends or family members.) Never drop food on the floor. Food should be cut differently for each dish. And when you help cook in the kitchen, always wear your hair up. She had a real temper, and if I misbehaved, she would say, “I will not cook for you tomorrow.” Once I disobeyed her in the kitchen, making a big mess. As punishment, she put a hot rod to the back of my neck. I did not repeat those mistakes.
The field hands on our farm had to be fed every day, and I helped her cook for them. After our family dinner, we would go to the field and feed our workers. Every day we would make a list of foods needed for the next day. Mom had the efficiency of a businesswoman, knew where and how money was spent.
(with brother, mom, and dad)
Sadly, she fell several couple of times shortly after giving birth my fourth brother and was in pain quite often. When I was ten, the doctor came to the house and gave her a shot. She demanded another, then another. In the morning, she could not feel her legs and went to live in a nursing home. She spent three years there, but never regained the ability to walk and was confined to a wheelchair.
My brothers were sent to live with my father’s grandparents, and I went to my mom’s parents in Kediri, a small quiet village. My grandfather was a military man for the United Nations, so he also traveled a lot, like my dad. My grandmother was old-fashioned. Cooking was done on a wood stove. “Cooking with electricity tastes different,” she would say. It was my job to replenish the supply of wood, returning with the logs tied on the back of my bicycle. She created a happy home for me, but I missed being with my mom, even though I could visit her on some weekends.
After three years of recovery, my mother came home, and so did I. Sundays were always a day of complete rest for her, but occasionally, if I had done something to celebrate, she would make a exception and make a treat for me and the family. Extra special was a pudding called es teler, a blend of coconut meat, jackfruit, and other fruits, served with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk, but my favorite was bingka singkong, or cassava cake. When I was 24, I married an Englishman and moved away. In England, I have the same tradition of a celebratory sweet, and hug the memory of my special mother. But not just on Sundays.
Yuliyah Mills lives in Gloucestershire, England, and works at an assembly plant. She is an aspiring actress and can be found on Backstage.
Bingka Singkong (Cassava Cake)
3/4 c. + 1 T. coconut milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. water
7 oz. sugar
2 12 T. butter
2 lb. frozen grated cassava, thawed
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork, then add coconut milk and vanilla, mixing well. Set aside.
In a small pan, boil water and sugar until the sugar has completely dissolved.
Turn off heat.
Add butter to the pan, stirring until melted.
Transfer to a mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly until you can touch it without burning your finger.
Add grated cassava, mixing well.
Add egg mixture, mixing well.
Pour into an 8-inch square pan greased with coconut oil or softened butter.
Bake for about 1 hour, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Let the cake cool completely before cutting into serving pieces.