Of her­itage, com­fort food and be­ing Malaysian

The Star Malaysia - StarBiz - - Viewpoint - S. JAYASANKARAN star­biz@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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