I NEED MORE FIRE ON MY PLATE
It’s funny how tastes and smells morph from dislike to craving, pungent to pleasant
SOMETHING strange is happening. For the first time in over two decades of living in Asia, I realise that I need to spice up my life. Ah, no, sorry, if you were expecting a juicy story about the secret dreams of a bored housewife nipping cocktails by the pool, hiding under a large-brimmed hat, dozing off to the distant and gentle sound of a nanny entertaining the progeny… I’m afraid I have to disappoint you.
I need to add spice to my life, literally. My taste buds are acting up on me. Like every good expat — and every self-respecting tourist — I have been trying my utmost to keep an open mind, investigate, try, sample, and treat myself and my family to every possible home-grown delicacy I have come across over the years.
Some local favourites are easy to embrace, like nasi lemak — okay, the ikan bilis and sambal might be a bit of an acquired taste. There are also some tongue twisters a la char kway
teow, which we would love to try but fail to pronounce when ordering. Then there’s beef rendang,
considered a rite of passage of sorts. And, others are simply mind-boggling; ABC ais
kacang comes to mind.
During a recent visit on home turf, however, I couldn’t help but notice how I kept reaching for the salt and pepper at mealtimes. I have to interject at this point that my mother, an accomplished homemaker and finishing school graduate had taught me at a young age how impossibly discourteous it is to rectify a cook’s seasoning, let alone a chef ’s.
So, it is with a copious amount of reluctance and self-consciousness that I have been adding condiments to my good old European soup, sauce and salad, all the while trying to direct the host’s attention towards something incredibly captivating on the other side of the room. Cheeky, I know, and often futile.
How come my longed-for cheese and cream-based sauces and my zucchini and bell pepper induced soups taste a little more like paper maché than I remembered? How is it possible that healthy options, like power foods and salads, taste way too healthy, aka bland, all of a sudden? It is with no meagre measure of surprise that I realise, “I need more fire on my plate”. Salt, pepper, and piles of Parmigiano serve but as a feeble first-aid solution for my bored palate. I am craving chilli, curry paste, fresh ginger, squeezed kaffir lime, soya sauce and coriander. Maybe, even some fish sauce. No, not durian, don’t push your luck now.
There was a time, when I only ever dared to order my Peri-Peri chicken with mild garlic sauce. I remember painfully picking every last bit of red that may or may not, at one point, have been a bird’s eye chilli out of my fried rice.
And who, in their right mind, would ever understand the need to sprinkle dried chilli flakes over a perfectly good, home-delivered pizza? The same goes for drinks; green apple kasturi, with a preserved plum dwelling at the bottom of the glass like the kitchen helper’s long lost band-aid, really? And, how about lemon, ginger and turmeric tea? Anyone? I have vivid memories of nauseously holding my breath while racing past the belacan-scented food court at a local department store.
I also used to fight the urge to inhale every time I came across dried I’m-not quite-sure what on display at an old Chinese apothecary.
Nowadays, I order the threechilli marked chef ’s special at the local mamak stall without batting an eyelid. While I don’t often indulge in cardboard-clad pizza any more, I do make sure to pilfer the little chilli flake packets when I get half a chance. And, I do admit to sneak a piece of ginger into my children’s breakfast smoothie when they don’t pay attention. Recent visitors from overseas will have gone home to tell horrified tales of how I insisted they take a whiff of the different herbs and parched fungi in Chinatown’s back alley health stalls. As for the apple juice, how can I get to the little asamboi plum in there without making too big a mess?
It is a funny thing, how tastes and smells creep into your subconscious and morph from dislike to craving, from pungent to pleasant, isn’t it? No, I’m still not talking about durian, especially not durian cheesecake. While there might be a method to my madness, there is also a limit to it. But then again, never say never…
My taste buds are acting up on me. Like every good expat — and every self-respecting tourist — I have been trying my utmost to keep an open mind, investigate, try, sample, and treat myself and my family to every possible homegrown delicacy I have come across over the years.
Some local favourites are easy to embrace, like ‘nasi lemak’.