You can’t make it even if you have the recipe.
Every year, during the raya period, Ming (my husband) expects me to accompany him to all the open house visits he goes on. There’s usually reluctance on my part because I have an aversion to crowds and qualms about eating in front of unfamiliar faces.
This year, I agree to visit one house – Aunty Sutina’s. Apparently, she makes the best lontong and tells the best stories.
When we arrive at her house, she calls to us, with her loud, booming, lecturer-type voice, to open the gate and come in. She walks us around her home garden — she grows chilis, galangal, mint and more. (If you want any cuttings or seeds, just let me know, she says.)
And then when we’re inside the house, Aunty Sutina’s sister has already laid out bowls of steaming lontong, ready for eating. It’s a Javanese lontong, Ming tells me, although I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
It looks like a typical lontong — lontong rice in vegetable curry, garnished with serunding and a dollop of sambal. I experience my usual butterflies about eating in front of a stranger, but as we eat, Aunty Sutina starts talking. It doesn’t take long before she stops being an unfamiliar face.
As soon as I take a bite, I realise why Ming makes it a point to visit Aunty Sutina’s every year. I dig into the lontong as if it’s my last meal. The curry is slightly sweet and santan-y rich, yet light enough to drink like a soup.
The flavours of cabbage, long beans, radish and carrots have permeated the entire dish. Salty, spicy sambal cuts through the flavour of the vegetable curry, which coats the lontong rice that still has a light banana leaf fragrance. As I’m eating, I discover the glass noodles, tofu, fuchuk (tofu skin) and tempeh.
It’s a delightful mix of flavours and textures that feels extravagant, and yet, comforting. I keep eating and when I’m done, Aunty Sutina asks if I would like more. You can only eat this once a year, she says. It’s too tedious to make it all year round.
It takes six hours to cook the serunding. The sambal takes at least four. The rice has to be wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for eight hours.
Aunty Sutina’s lontong recipe has been passed down through her family for generations. Is it a secret, I wonder. Would she be willing to share?
It turns out, she is. When I ask, she pulls out a box full of paper scraps. On each piece, there’s a list of ingredients and measurements, in neat, tiny handwriting. The lontong recipe is on top as she’s just used it. There’s no other method of organisation; she flips through the box every time she wants a recipe. The scraps of paper don’t even have the name of the dish written on it.
The lontong recipe has three parts – one recipe for the curry, one for the serunding, and one for the sambal. It’s assumed that one already knows how to make the lontong rice.
You can snap photos, she tells me, so I do. She shows me that her mother has included the weight of the ingredients in the margins, beside instructions like “one head of cabbage” or “pinch of salt”. Your pinch is different from my pinch right, Aunty Sutina says.
If I really want to make the same lontong, however, Aunty Sutina says that I have to watch her making it. It’s how she learned it from her mother. Ingredients and measurements can be passed on, but knowing when to stop stirring the sambal, how long the serunding needs to be fried, these things require actual experience.
Aunty Sutina and her sisters are the last generation to have that experience. Her children have never watched her make it. Her nieces and nephews have never done it either. Nobody wants to do something so tedious anymore, she says, so you better come and eat while you still can.
I wonder if she’ll let me watch her making it next year. But before I can ask, she is already standing up. She reaches for my bowl and although I am no longer hungry, I say, yes, thank you, I’ll have some more.