Thursday, 22 January 2015

Memories of food

Oisin in 2011... making his own food memories... i can only hope
that he grows up to be a food snob too
Yesterday when i got home after a school meeting, i had a glass of wine, put on some music and began cooking. I made a pasta sausage and chicken casserole with spicy wedge chips. It was called using up all the shite you found in the freezer after having done a spring clean.

I make all my Yorkshire puddings from scratch. I find the store bought ones too dry. However, there are now three packs - opened and half used - in the freezer (which i did not buy) and i am now thinking, how am i going to use them up? Does Yorkshire pudding go with anything else apart from roast beef? Perhaps i could pretend they are small casings from mini cottage pies? I also have, mysteriously packs and packs of fishballs. I never buy fishballs because they most certainly have no fish in them. In fact i do not know what they put in them. Melamine probably. I think those i will just dump.

My dad used to make these amazing fish cakes. They could only be made with this certain fish - ikan... um... i forget the name of the fish in Malay but he insists it is a variety of mackerel we get in Singapore. He would scrape the flesh off - the flesh had to be scraped, not cut, because all the veins were then left behind, and then he would pound the fish with a little bit of flour and some salt until it became a ball. Then you could use the fish dough thing to stuff things with, OR you could make the most excellent fish strips by rolling them out and coating them with cornflour before deep frying it. My sister and i called it nyok-nyok and we dipped it in Tabasco sauce. Because it was so tedious to make, it was a Sunday lunch thing and when my dad made it, it was a treat. When we got older we would complain about the inconsistency of the thinness of the strips, so we took over rolling and cutting it. My sister and I, arguing about how think or thin the fish pancake was before we cut it. My mom, insisting that we make the strips thicker, we telling her she was wasting our time, my dad, by this time would have had a shower and gone to sleep. Cooking is one of my favourite, all time activities. And instinctive cooking too. None of this, look at book and what is the next step thing. That drives me bonkers since i cannot remember the instruction after i have read it.

Ah, life...

I admit i am a food snob. I have never any trouble resisting chocolate because most chocolate is shite. Except at that time of the month. And then i just eat one square of anything. I would much rather go hungry than eat crap. Except that time of the month, when i would eat anything even if i am not hungry for three days. 

See that T-Shirt? That is the same one Oisin is wearing four years later in the
earlier photograph. Taken in 2007
This is my sister having some of that Chinese pau thingy which i can never remember
what it's called. Kong Bak i think
My dad is a food snob and my mom is a food snob - i know the McDonalds thing is an abberration... which i don't really understand. But i think that is just something Asians are. Especially in my grandmother's and mother's generation. They cooked and they knew exactly what food should taste like. They knew how to choose a fish - i remember going to the market with them. The fish would be next to alive, just taken out of the sea by the fishermen the night before and they would prod it. Sometimes it would still be swimming in a tank. The smell of the markets, the noises, the water, the wet feathers, the scales, the innards being washed onto the floor as the fishmongers gutted the fish in front of us, or the chickens were being dragged out of cages to be slaughtered and plucked. Shopping in the markets during weekend was such an experience... we'd move from stall to stall, picking out food, and coming back later for it. For mutton we would go to Tekka. For fish, the local wet market in Ang Mo Kio. Pork and chicken was good anywhere as well. You could get fish stuffed veggies. Mountains of bean sprout. Heaps and heaps of kangkong and spinach. Everything was fresh.

God i don't just miss Asia, i miss that Singapore of my childhood, which sadly does not exist anymore. What we have now is a sanitised version of the market because people don't really cook. They all eat out and i am sorry to say that most food in Singapore, although plentiful is mostly tasteless. My mother says, well what do you expect, most of the people doing the cooking don't know what the original dish was supposed to be like.

When i was 15 i went to stay with my grandmother for a week to learn how to cook Peranakan food. I will never forget it. She insisted we did everything by hand. We cut, chopped, sliced, pounded, diced... she taught me to choose shallots, chillis, garlic, onions... buah keras, ikan bilis, papaya fruits, pineapples. We made our own spring roll skins. I still have the recipe book from that short stay. And i learnt so much. From her i learnt about how to cook from sight and taste. My mother taught me how to cook Malay and Indian dishes. My dad has never passed down his Chinese dish collection to me. I think i will insist that he does this the next time we visit Singapore and i will insist that Oisin helps out. I was actually talking about this the other day when Oisin asked me did Kong Kong cook? I said, he did, but he made these extremely complicated Chinese dishes - like the Bhudda Jump Over the Wall, which i would not eat now on account of the sharks fin he would use. And really the dish tastes like nothing if you don't put the sharks' fin in. But then i explained to him that these dishes were delicacies and we should only have eaten them like once every year, rather making them available everywhere...

In fact, Oisin is becoming quite interested in cooking. I think it is the right age - because now he is developing a sense of taste - and if he does not learn to cook now i don't think he will learn to eat. But if anyone does any bit of their own cooking they are bound to be food snobs.

Oh the other thing we used to have was turtles' eggs. You can't get this anymore now because of course they have been robbed to extinction. But my grandmother would have this craving even when she was very old. You'd eat this with dark soya sauce. It is a bit sobering to think of the generations of turtles which have been wiped out because of my family. Hmmm.... so Oisin and Ghin will never eat sharks fin nor turtles eggs. Not that they would anyway. Just like i would never eat monkey's brain or belut, which is half hatched chick. Or bat.

Shopping at Tekka... Oisin is the same age Ghin is now
I really miss the way things tasted more. Tapir - not the animal, but the fermented ubi. Eaten in a kelong by a beach. The breezes are blowing, it is late morning. We have just come back from playing in the sun, and swimming in the South China Sea. We are sticky and covered in sand, everything tastes of salt and we are thirsty and happy. We have a green coconut to drink and we take the tapir out of the fridge. It is wrapped in some leaf. My tapir has gone red. My mother says, that is because the person who made it had her period. It is still perfectly edible. There is the clean scent of rice being boiled and heavy pungent smell of sambal belacaan being fried. Across the waters, a storm is coming and the rain, it has its own smell too. My mom tells us to go outside and hose ourselves down since we won't be swimming till after the rain passes. When the rains are gone, the beach will be washed clean - our footprints will be erased, the shores flat and the waters will lap quietly once again. We will be full of fried fish and rice, and kang kong. Our skins will be burning from the heat of the morning. We will then return to the beach, in the blazing noon and play there for the rest of the day, until the sun sets. And then for dinner we will have more fish cooked over an open wood fire, with more rice, more sambal and maybe some curry chicken.

I think that is why i am a food snob. It isn't just the food, it is the sun, the beaches, the noise, the grandmothers and mothers, the cousins and the gossip. The trees, the dirt roads, the kelongs and the kampongs. The laughter and the jelly fish. The crabs we chased. The approaching storms. The sunsets and sunrises. The memories, like a good stew, that will get richer and richer as time passes.

A new generation rolling their own popiah on my mother's birthday
After cycling and hanging out in Changi...too awesomely fun

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