In Singapore, watermelon seed consumption is a predominantly Chinese affair. At wedding ceremonies the seeds are fertility symbols for the couple (representative of their family’s eager wishes), and at traditional Taoist three-day funerals the seeds are everywhere you look. Strangely enough, despite the Chinese love for symbolism there does not seem to be a significance for the watermelon seeds’ ubiquity at funerals.
In the past week, I’ve asked all the matriarchs I know as to whether a deeper meaning lies behind it, and I’ve come to a (half-baked) conclusion. But first, a little preamble (bear with me): The Chinese believe that the deceased’s body needs to be watched over at all times—lest a pregnant cat jumps over the coffin, prompting the corpse to sit up. Now, I don’t know how true this is, only that it’s a very good thing Chinese families tend to be large and extended…so relatives can take turns to "chor ye"—the filial duty of staying up to shoo cats away. Everyone knows staying up requires munchies, and what better to munch on when struggling to stay awake than something as tedious and time consuming as watermelon seeds?
Locals have adopted the Malay term bawa—which means “downstairs”—to refer to things that are déclassé (e.g., “He stole candy from a baby—what bawa behavior!”). Correspondingly, the term atas, "upstairs," refers to things that are classy (e.g., “That’s such an atas restaurant. I wonder how she affords it?”)
Personally, I have no issues with seeming bawa by cracking watermelon seeds with my teeth and extracting the brittle, off-white kernels with my tongue before spitting out the shells. But somewhere along the way, someone saw a niche market, realizing that the atas lot would want a more atas means of watermelon seed consumption. Hence, the invention of the watermelon seed cracker (hereafter referred to as the WACK).
Like the “magic thumb thingy” for shelling chestnuts I wrote about last week, the WACK is one nifty gadget. All you do is place the watermelon seed in the indentation in the middle, grasp the two ends of the WACK, and squeeze gently. The result is two perfectly separated shell halves, and the watermelon seed kernel in its unbroken entirety. (For the record, I’m perturbed by how much I sound like a late night TV ad. Whatever…it works.)
Visiting hyphenated-Chinese friends (Aussie-Chinese, American-Chinese, etc.) cart back great bagfuls of these for their relatives. Seems there’s a huge market out there for atas solutions to bawa problems… anyone out there has a brilliant idea for licking icing off beaters in a classy fashion?
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.