I NEED MORE FIRE ON MY PLATE

It’s funny how tastes and smells morph from dis­like to crav­ing, pun­gent to pleas­ant

New Straits Times - - Opinion - fan­ny­bucheli@gmail.com The writer is a life-long ex­pa­tri­ate, a rest­less trav­eller, an ob­server of the hu­man con­di­tion and un­apolo­get­i­cally in­sub­or­di­nate

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.

FILE PIC

Some lo­cal favourites are easy to em­brace, like ‘nasi lemak’.

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