“Steam sweet potato until tender.”
At a time when the mere act of living comes with an overbearing instruction manual, this is the opening line in the onde-onde recipe in front of me. How vague.
Its ambiguity raises a series of questions: How much steaming time does the spud need to get tender? How tender are we talking? Can I just boil it instead? Aware that I was handling Mother Nature’s products, I recognised that it was their inherent unpredictability which rendered the recipe writer incapable of precision. Perhaps this was as exact as he could get.
The sweet potato was indeed a random, irregular thing: gnarly in places, smooth in others. Its form meandered: wide-bodied and curvy in some parts, narrow and wiry elsewhere. I sliced it in two, so it could fit the steamer I had fashioned out of a pot and small bowl. “Steam for 12 minutes, and then a chopstick poke to test, but the tenderness is all your call,” whispered my gut to my brain, to my gut. Drawing upon a reservoir of memories, experiences and mental notes, from my years of cooking and baking, and guided by my instincts, I embarked on my onde-onde-making journey.
After my tender spud encounter, I found myself wondering about the pandan leaves on the kitchen counter. Whenever I’d used pandan—for sweet soups, say, or kueh dadar—I had only to harvest a few blades from a garden in Singapore. The leaves never warranted an extensive wash, for they grew only with sunlight, rain, and other organic nutrients. This time, armed with store-bought pandan, the only kind available in Berlin, where I live, uncertainty lingered about their cleanliness. Opting for caution, I rinsed the leaves multiple times and wiped them with a kitchen towel. A grey residue blotted the towel, so I rinsed the leaves again, undertaking the slow and meditative task of wiping each blade clean and dry. I wondered whether others embarked on a similarly meticulous ritual, if this was the kueh-making tedium Peranakan aunties, drained but still radiant in their kebayas, would quip about around the table.
When it came time to fill and shape the onde-onde, I found myself struggling to interpret the recipe’s directive to “bring up dough to enclose gula”. I applied tried-and-tested techniques, recalling videos I had watched of tangyuan, mochi and mooncake-making. My wrists and fingers moved in an improvisational dance of their own, reshaping and remoulding themselves as I manipulated the dough. One of my improvisations resulted in rugby ball-shaped onde-onde. No bother…