I was recovering from a cold earlier this month. I had gone into work but discovered my body wasn’t ready to get back to it.
Wilting fast, I drove to the doctors and ducked into a Malaysian place for lunch. I ordered and tried not to hack up a lung as I waited for the soupy goodness to arrive.
Yong tau fu.
It is made from vegetables and tofu stuffed with something delicious. I don’t know what. It’s my parents’ favourite. They used to get cravings for it when we were living in Singapore. But in Singapore, they had it dry and mixed with noodles.
The Malaysian place served it in either a laksa or clear soup with noodles.
The waiter recognised me and smiled. I muster a wobbly smile back. My eyes track his movements as he takes the bowl from the kitchen and slowly places it before me.
It looks so good. I pick up my chopsticks and spoon. I am about to slurp that steaming soup.
“Eh, what is that you are eating?”
I look to my right. The voice comes from an Asian auntie in her mid-sixties. She’s staring at my food, curious.
“It’s yong tau fu. My Singaporean friend introduced me to it,” I smile.
“Oh, yong tau fu,” she nods. “I have never tried it here. Is it good?”
“It is delicious. I would offer you some, but I am sick today,” I mutter as best as I can and turn back to my food.
I’m about to lift my spoon to my mouth.
“Eh, what did she say it was?” another Auntie pipes up. She is on another table.
“Yong tau fu,” the first Auntie responds.
“What is it?” I’m sure she’s heard her, but the second Auntie looks at me anyway.
“It’s yong tau fu,” I answer.
“Oh, yong tau fu. Is it good?”
“Yes. Very much so.” By now I’ve put down my spoon.
“I am Malaysian,” says Auntie number one.
“Me too,” says Auntie number two, from the other table.
Auntie number one turns to me and comments, “You don’t look Malaysian. Where are you from?”
Here we go. Where to start…
“I am Korean-Australian. I grew up in Tasmania, but have lived in Singapore for six years and in Indonesia for two.”
“Oh,” both Aunties nod. “Korean.”
I smile and go back to my food. It is still hot and delicious. They let me slurp away. They chat with each other about Malaysia, about food and life. A spry grandmother next to them gets up. Her hair is white and she is wearing a purple jacket. I try to eat my food but she catches my eye.
“Eh, what is she eating?” she asks Auntie number two.
“It’s yong tau fu,” Auntie number two responds.
“Where are you from?” the grandmother with the purple jacket and the white hair asks me. She has young eyes.
“She is Korean,” Auntie number one answers for me. “But she lived in Singapore and Indonesia. That is why she can eat all these different foods.”
The grandmother smiles at us before she heads on her way. We start talking about cooking and YouTube videos that teach Korean cooking. I admit I’m terrible at cooking authentic Korean food and that I rely on my mother or restaurants for my Korean food fix. They nod understandingly.
I am sick. My yong tau fu soup is getting cold. But I can’t help smiling.
These Malaysian Aunties are wonderful and their curiosity is infectious. They remind me of Korean Aunties who often pass on their wisdom to others. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t searching for wisdom, by the end of their talk you are grateful for the chat and feel like you’ve learned something.
Our family was on a train in the middle of Seoul once. My husband was carrying our child and I was sitting down. I felt a hand on my arm. It was a Korean Auntie.
The friendly Korean term is ee-moh. They are also known as ah-jum-ma, but use that at your peril. That term has fallen out of favour of late. Last time I checked, it’s almost become a pejorative term meaning unfashionable, unattractive older women.
“Look. You are on a train and your husband is standing and carrying your son,” she starts with the obvious. “Why don’t you put your son on your lap? It will be safer for everyone if you have your son on your lap.”
I smile and nod, thanking her for the advice. I take T from my husband who looked a little confused. I place our son on my lap.
“See?” the Korean Auntie gently pats my shoulder. “Much better. Safer.”
Back at the Malaysian restaurant, I catch my reflection on the counter.
The grey in my hair is getting thicker. The middle age spread has certainly spread. There are no lines around my eyes yet, but I’m sure that’s coming.
Not long now before I can go up to random strangers and ask if they enjoy their food. Or tell them how to be safe on public transport.
It is going to be awesome.
I can’t wait!