It started with a simple comment- get on with the blogging- alright, you anonymous visitor, you- *do* at least let me know *which* naggy friend you are. I was complaining to my sister that I was feeling rantless and uninspired about blogging. I really didn't feel like I wanted to say anything. The weather has been improving significantly and everything is starting to get green here. Of course, my whole take on blogging is I must have something worthwhile to say-or else why say it at all.
So, I was hunting through my hard drive for some pictures and I stumbled upon a little piece of writing that I did. I am not a writer, but sometimes, when I am motivated or effected enough, I sit down and write.
This piece is called "Double Wok Cooking".I wrote it in April, 2004
I had just returned from Easter holidays from my mum’s. What precipitated this journal entry is the reception that I got from mum. Some background- I have always helped mum in the kitchen. From as young as I remembered- she always got me to prepare the evening meal for her. I was her sous chef extraordinaire. I chopped and pounded. I hated pounding. My eyes watered and I cried as the pungent fumes from those shallots and garlic and even chilli assaulted my eyes.” Mum, is this enough? “ I would ask- hoping that it was. Invariably, mum would say- no- just a little bit more. And I tried everything to shield myself form the fumes- I had a potcover I used as a shield- I remember its black phenolic knob- dull with years of use- the curved dome of the battered aluminium cover.
I remember the ridges on the cover, where dirt and grease from previous cooking sessions had gathered in the grooves as I insistently and reluctantly pounded away at the mixture. Sometimes I would be treated to splashes of onion juice- especially when the shallots were extra juicy. As I grew older, I used to rebel against this dreaded chore. I always harangued mum about using the blender, instead- why can’t you use your blender- its much easier, mum. The onions will dull the blade- and the plastic would absorb the flavour and the next time you want to blend something nice you’d get the flavour onions tinging whatever juice you were concocting. I remember the triumphant time I returned home from my friend Carol’s place- mum, mum- Carol’s mother uses the blender--they take the pungency out by blending salt and water at the end of the session. Can’t we try that? Mum never let up and gave in. I could not understand why she was so reluctant to use the appliances that made things so much easier.
When I moved out, I bought a little chopper to do my rempah (spice mix). No more chopping and pounding for me. Whrrrrr- whrrr-whrrrrr went the chopper and my onions and garlic and ginger- the holy trinity of Malaysian cooking- was nicely minced up finely. My cooking, although praised by all my friends, never tasted like mums. Mum’s was the holy grail- it was what we (my darling sister and I) strived for. There was a metallic taste. I’d cook something for hours to get around the metallic taste. No matter what I did- it was never the same. It irked and annoyed me to no end. I was always trying something new- and mum would always have some sort of comment for me and it would annoy me since she never tried making a new dish and there she was, offering me suggestions on something she knew nothing about. I was stubbornly relentless about her suggestions. I had all these gadgets to help me cook-and in my mind- it was never good enough- because it’s not like hers.
But then, I moved away. I really missed mum’s cooking. And this leads me back to the story. I returned home and she had cooked some Kuey Teow (pan fried broad rice noodles) for me. It was Good Friday so it was no meat day. The kuey teow was delicious. Its simplicity- the mix of flavours the salt and freshly ground pepper- it was perfect. I was amazed that my mother created this magical dish out of so little- noodles, some chilli paste, garlic, chives, egg. I asked her how she made it. In her own style, she proceeded to tell me. Mum, when she is relaying recipes, was bound to leave something out. So the next day, she showed me. By then, it was Saturday-we dragged out the lap cheong and I had picked up some shrimp and so today’s was going to be even more delicious. The kuey teow had to be nuked for 120 seconds to soften it. Then they had to be “peeled” to separate the sheets of noodles. I chopped the chives. I cut the lap cheong diagonally. I chopped the garlic. She pulled out two eggs. She was using her crappy frypan- once long ago, it was non-stick, but the Xylan or Teflon coating has since worn off.
“Mum, why don’t you use the non stick pan I got you?-Oh, I don’t want it to lose its non-stickyness.
Arrgghh!! Mum- I’ll get you a new pan…. "Don’t worry, I already started", she said. In went the garlic- it sizzled gently as she didn’t believe in turning the stove on to full/ high heat. The fear was it would heat up and explode.
“ But mum, the man always had it on high heat…” This “man” we keep referring to is the man who sold char kuey teow daily. The infamous “man” is a hawker who perfected the art of one dish and one dish alone. He would have a charcoal or a gas stove and I remember the coals being red hot and the pan sizzling. Mum didn’t budge- and in went the garlic. In went in the noodles-“wait, wait, I didn’t finish peeling it.” Mum with her asbestos fingers kept peeling the kueh teow in the pan. In went in the chilli paste. She started another pan- her little sauté pan to lightly toast/brown the lap cheong (chinese sausage). Mum, I don’t understand why you are cooking with two pans. “Couldn’t you have tossed the lap cheong first, then add the garlic- that way the flavour to the garlic?” She ignored me. In went the soy sauce and some salt, dark sauce. She was turning the noodles in the pan. She sprinkled some water in. Some sugar went in too. She deftly transferred the lap cheong to the pan and cracked an egg into the sauté pan. I was about to ask- and she explains- if you add egg to the noodles, it would drop the temperature and the egg won’t cook. And as you turn the noodles, the egg would coat the noodles and you won’t see the big chunky pieces like the “man’s”." But mum, the man adds the egg to the pan” “But the man has a better stove and control of his fire” she says. The egg was half cooked when she tossed it into the main fry pan. She carelessly broke the egg as she turned the noodles. In went the taugeh(bean sprouts) and the chives. The prawns got the same treatment as the eggs- her rationale was a drop in the temp as you add more food to the pan. Then she pulls out her batu tumbuk, her granite mortar and pestle, and gives in a few pounds. There were peppercorns in there and she carefully took some pounded pepper out and tossed it into the pan. The peppercorns, I toasted to release the aromatic fragrance, she explains. The shrimps go in last and the dish was ready. It was divine. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also sat down to write the recipe out.
When I got back home, I was determined to repeat the dish. I had everything on hand, and then some. I followed it to the “T” and much to my dismay- it did not taste like hers. There was this hollow taste in it- something was definitely missing. Arrggghhh!
I repeated it the second time- this time, I made sure I had some prawn stock- mum’s trade secret. She usually sets aside the shells of peeled prawns to make a stock. The dish tasted better- but it still was not like mums. I even tried the double wok method, cooking in two places so it would taste like hers.
I’ve thought lots about this- and the conclusion I can come to is that the missing ingredient is love. Mum, when she prepares food, demonstrates her love for us. She does everything lovingly. It really does make a difference.
During the weekend- we talked extensively about cooking. It seems that my desire to make my food taste like hers is just shadowed by her attempts to make her food tastes like her mums. She was saying that no matter how, it never tasted like her mums. And I saw the irony of this all. We were all striving for something we remember and perhaps all our food will never exactly taste like our mum’s- we are, after all, different individuals touched and affected by different circumstances. This does not diminish the love and effort we put into our cooking and the memory is always there and perhaps it’s a goal we can all aspire to.