Of heritage, comfort food and being Malaysian
THERE is only one thing worse than having a wife who can cook but won’t and that’s having a wife who can’t cook but will.
As you may have guessed my wife belongs to the former category but, in her defence, I hasten to add that in her previous job, she was generally too busy and now, with our daughter away, it’s generally a pain to have to cook for just two people. So we usually eat out.
After her retirement, though, two things happened. One was that Raisa, our daughter, who now lives in Vienna, kept asking her various recipes that she missed eating because she longed the comfort of the dishes of her childhood. The other was my niece Rowena, currently stationed in Milan, com- plaining to her mother that she missed the “smell of home.”
A light went off in my wife’s head and she resolved, a month after her official retirement, that she would write a book to recount her growing-up years together with various recipes that she’d learned from the women in her life namely her grandmother, mother and two aunts.
Let’s call it a labour of love, heritage and comfort food. And let’s title it The Smell of Home.
I know what you’re thinking. Shame on you! You’re guessing that I am about to shamelessly plug her book which, incidentally, may retail for RM50 apiece at a bookshop near you.
And you would be right too.
But I am digressing again. That’s a recurrent problem in this column. For some reason, I always do.
Anyway, as I was saying, my wife’s what you would call an intuitive cook, which is to say she does not measure, weigh or calibrate. She does it by feel and I confess the results are astonishing. But for this book, she became near obsessive: measuring weighing and calibrating with the best of them. And she double checked the quantities with her two sisters, transferring old, completely unempirical recipes handed down by her grandmother into measurable, doable dishes for anyone wanting to cook Eurasian-Nyonya dishes.
But The Smell of Home is no mere recipe book. It’s about being Malaysian and the importance of not just “tolerance” as our leaders frequently, and dismissively, suggest. It’s about the relevance of Malaysian minorities and their place in this nation of ours.
You see, Rebecca defies easy classification or stereotyping. She does not fall easily into that great, yawning chasm of race that has been used as a means to compartmentalise us since independence. It is something of a dreadful irony that, after six decades, race continues to loom large in all our lives. And that’s a pity because our spectacular diversity could just as well be used to unite us.
Rebecca falls in between the Malaysian cracks. She is neither Portuguese, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban nor Kadazan, although Lord knows she could be all of the above. Or none of it.
And that makes her uniquely Malaysian. That is fine by her and, truth be told, she is proud of it. I like it too as I get the best of both worlds: great food knows no divisions. It has zero boundaries.
She got down to writing the book a month after retirement and completed the writing in two. Then came the hard part: the photography and the design and layout.
Joanne, Rebecca’s cousin’s wife, is an accountant by profession but you wouldn’t know that given the lovely photography splashed throughout the book.
And bless Chan Lee Shon. A former creative director at an ad-agency, Shon went about the book’s design and layout so meticulously that it just blew us away.
It is a book about growing up in Malaysia written by one of its own. And it’s fitting that it comes out a week after Malaysia Day.
Which, by the way, is today. Happy Malaysia Day folks.