Despite growing up in a house filled with the smells of freshly baked goods, lunches that were never the same as dinners, no less than 3 dishes of meat and vegetables at every meal, accompanied by soup that takes donkey-years to boil, I had scant appreciation for home-cooking until I left home. In the ignorance of my youth, my most oft-spouted response to being asked to help out in the kitchen was, “I don’t want to spend all my time slaving over the hot stove.”
After all, apart from having the physical dexterity of a chicken with duck feet, I was going to become a career woman. What need did I have for cooking when all the working women I knew had catered food delivered to the home or bought family dinners from the economy rice stalls?
When my extremely hygienic mother (she’s a former nurse, if you must know) asked me to help her clean for the umpteenth time, I’d grumble, “Why do I need to know how to mop and clean when I can pay someone to do all that for me in the future?”
Oooh…the things you say that come back to haunt you. Little did I know that my future involved living in a land where cleaners command upwards of $25 an hour (about the same as or more than entry-level professionals) and economy rice stalls do not exist. Ha! And guess who I had to crawl back to for easy recipes on not-so-humble home-cooking?
After living more than half of my life away from home, I’ve come to see the wisdom of what my mother said earlier, in response to my many protestations: “When you can cook, you can make food taste EXACTLY THE WAY YOU WANT, instead of the way someone else wants.”
“When you can clean, you won’t be held to ransom by maids and cleaners.”
Back then I had no idea what my mother was on about. Who would quit on me if I pay them? Why wouldn’t the chef make food the way I want it to be made?
Obviously I had to learn the hard way. This morning for instance, I discovered that although big fry-ups are a staple at most breakfast cafes, not all know how to make a proper one. Sure, the eggs were poached as I requested and there was a sausage, which I was looking forward to, but the eggs tasted of the vinegar put into the water to poach the eggs.
Now, I’m no master chef, but I can tell you that if the eggs were very fresh, the vinegar would not have been necessary. At any rate, they should have been rinsed and drained well enough after the poaching so I wouldn’t taste the vinegar. Meanwhile, I swear that the sausage came straight out of a microwave: it was split right down the middle from over-cooking and the ends where it had been cut from the other links had oozed out to form crusty “muffin tops.” On top of which, the sausage was as dry and chewy as a piece of bark. The other elements of the fry-up were all right, but as I said, fry-ups form the bulk of business for most breakfast cafes so they should know how to serve up a decent one.
Having said that, my taste buds are simply spoilt from all those years of home-cooking. My mother wasn’t just one to cook and bake, she’d go over the one recipe until it was perfected, totally convinced that the author of the recipe had left ingredients out or given erroneous measurements on purpose. Until today, many of her cookies, cakes, tarts and whatnot are still the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten heaps) but please don’t think of asking me to ask her what she puts in them because I haven’t the slightest interest in baking and the only people she’d tell are family.
Nowadays, the one who preaches the benefits of DIY is me. My mother practically rolled her eyes when a couple of years back I showed her Shannon Lush’s “Spotless.” That’s probably because, with few exceptions, I have someone clean my house for me. Nonetheless I do know how to roll up my metaphorical sleeves and dig in, should I need to. Since her accident, my mother has been having catered dinners. My father usually hops out at midday to buy lunch from the coffee shops near their house. Since we kids left home, she only makes the cakes, cookies, tarts and whatnot for church bake sales or when she comes to visit me, at Amanda’s request.
Amanda’s most recent request has been for her to make apple pie and apple crumble when she passes this way again in December. Last December when we went home, the two of them made 2 batches of walnut-topped, blueberry muffins together. I was chuffed to see grandmother and granddaughter working side by side, the two of them bonding over flour and butter, even as I sat there with my legs up, surfing the telly.
I suppose, regardless of where you live and what your means are, it all boils down to how badly you want something done. Because I had to have “keropok lekor” and no market stocks that over here, I scoured the internet for recipes, then using the amalgam of several, attempted to make my own. I’ve also made my own Chinese pasta from scratch, which I wouldn’t have thought to do if I could have just bought it ready-made, cooked and flavoured from a shop.
True, you can buy whatever it is I make in Malaysia or Singapore, but do you really know what goes into your food? Rumour has it that fried foods bought from the stalls stay crispy for hours because plastic is melted into the oil to form a coating on the food. I’ve also heard that tissue paper is routinely mixed in with flaked fish to bring down the cost of each bowl of Assam Laksa. And just yesterday, I read of the link between maternal nutrition and autism. While the author of the article didn’t say autism is caused by food per se, the only thing to have changed between 1990 and 2000, accounting for a 870% increase in the incidence autism, is our diet and the food chain. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. Perhaps it’s time to dust down that apron.