À La Recherche des Aliments Perdu – In search of foods past
Food for thought
There was a time when I would scoff at my older friends when they talked about being unable to travel overseas without the crutch of chilli padi, sambal, and other Malaysian culinary accoutrements in their luggage. "Not me," I crowed, "I'm a gastronomic chameleon; I adapt to the foods of the country I'm visiting or staying in." I enjoyed my maverick status, liked being different, and not needing to travel with Maggi instant noodles stashed in my carry-on, or being beleaguered with a need to reproduce, say. In both instances, I was warned with wagging fingers and ominous tones that, "Don't worry, this will change when you get older!"
But while the maternal instinct hasn't quite managed to catch me yet, I've definitely fallen prey to the Malaysian ailment of missing my native food when overseas. Is it age that causes this? Does the inexorable passage of time make us hanker for halcyon days long gone, and with them, the meals that were so integral to our happiness and youth? I imagine that to be the case, because the first time I successfully cooked Penang har mee after a marathon ten hours of making the stock and fried shallots from scratch, the flavour of the broth was so reminiscent of the noodles I loved as a child that I almost cried from the memory.
I'm lucky, because the fact that now literally everyone can fly—thanks, Tony!—has meant that groceries too have become international. Asian supermarkets in major cities around the world routinely stock everything from fermented beancurd and belachan, to fucuk and century eggs. There are still gaps, of course (my quest to find torch ginger flowers, for example, in Sydney has still yielded no fruit), but by and large, if you have the patience and determination, sooner or later, you will unearth the ingredient you are after, and the process of tracking it down makes the dish that finally arrives at the dinner table infinitely more satisfying.
And it's funny too, what the body—and memory—crave. The usual hawker food suspects are all present and accounted for, but it's the unlikely home-cooked dishes that were such an inherent part of your younger life that suddenly surface in your subconscious and cause you the most surprise. An irrepressible urge for the braised pork belly in black sauce with hard-boiled eggs that my grandmother used to make—the sweet-salty-fatty flavour of which I can remember with more pristine clarity than what I did last month—sank its claws into my gut some months ago, and I could do nought until this craving had been satiated. The desire for other dishes is harder to account for, like the incomprehensible need for lo han chai that suddenly got me in its thrall and wouldn't let go, until the ridiculously complicated ingredients had been located and cooked.
With death so much a part of my life these days—six friends in seven weeks, and all much too young to go—I wonder whether my need to resuscitate the food of my youth is due to an unconscious quest to cling to a time when death was something that only happened in the movies, and the hardest decision I had to make was which book I wanted to read that night. Whatever the reason, this inadvertent trip down memory lane via my gustatory senses has been cathartic, and I think you will all profit from a little amble down the same path. At the very least, it will be a wonderful way to remember our friends now gone, and the happy times we shared together.