For the first time in many years, I won't be with my family for Chinese New Year. Let's just say the fire rooster arrived a tad early and helped 'cock' up my plans, but the upshot is I won't have the torturous traffic in Penang and unbearably hot weather to endure this year. I also won't be privy to the pleasure of savouring the dishes that have collectively become a reunion dinner ritual, which I—avaricious hog that I am—have a nasty tendency of anticipating weeks before the actual meal. Because my family is scattered around the globe, our reunion dinner would be a modest affair, with just my parents, my two brothers, a couple of children, a sister-in-law, and I, were it not for my mother. A consummate hostess with a passion and appetite for feeding people that I'm convinced I inherited from her, she forestalls any possibility of our reunion dinner being a quiet affair by inviting a bunch of expatriate friends who always welcome an invitation from her, because they, like me, know that a surfeit of great food and alcohol await at the Khoo household.
My mother's perfectionist streak is as evident as Cruella's forelock when it comes to her nasi lemak.
And so, landlocked in Sydney, and already licking the wounds of my self-pity, I can only imagine the meal, and conjuring powerful memories of taste is the only means by which I can vicariously partake in a feast at which I will not be at this year. Let me share the dishes with you. For as long as I can remember, my mother's nasi lemak has been the stuff of legend for those in the know, and I refer not to the pedestrian banana leaf-encased variety but rather to a smorgasbord of dishes that jostle for the privilege of being dance companions to the fragrant rice. In the same way that she taught me to read by the age of two (through threats, pinches prodigiously awarded, and the much rarer promises of rewards), my mother's perfectionist streak is as evident as Cruella's forelock when it comes to her nasi lemak. It's a staggering showcase that results in a groaning table overloaded with everything from the requisite chicken curry (voluptuous, velveteen), sambal ikan bilis, and hard-boiled eggs and cucumber slices, to her famous 'signature' dishes. I salivate as I imagine the tau eu bak, her braised black pork dish that is as aromatic as the meat is crumbly and replete with the sweet salty flavour of the broth, which flavour, when generously combined with the chicken curry and rice, I am especially partial to.
Then there is the ju hoo char, which though strictly speaking isn't a nasi lemak accoutrement, works because my mother has thoughtfully provided fresh skins laboriously obtained from a Perak Road (Leong, 345H Perak Road, +604-2813464) popiah skin merchant who makes them by hand. But rather than wrapping the fried jicama, cuttlefish, and vegetable mix, the flavour raider in me gleans greater gustatory pleasure when the ju hoo char is paired with rice that's already sodden with sauce.
We all fight to carry the plate to the buffet table because we know the courier tax ensures we get a couple of pieces of prime crackling before anyone else.
There are also mammoth assam prawns which I tend not to partake in because I know the other guests go gaga for them and I try to be a good daughter and restrain myself so the prawns don't run out and cause embarrassment. Admittedly, it's hardly a hardship for me, because right next to the prawns is my mother's roast pork that's so good my glands have gone into overdrive even as I write the words. The meat is the perfect juxtaposition between fatty and lean, with a bite that I can only describe as heavenly, but it's the crackling, so salty, so crunchy, so divine, that I am rapturous about. We all fight to carry the plate to the buffet table because we know the courier tax ensures we get a couple of pieces of prime crackling before anyone else.
I could go on, dear readers, about the rest of the dishes my mother magically concocts, but I won't, because I am already weak at the memory of all I will miss this year, most of all the sight of my parents' happy faces when the whole brood is together. For the rest of you who are lucky enough to be with family this Chinese New Year, savour the precious moments as you will the food, for they shall never be repeated. Gong Xi Fai Cai, may it be a kind, peaceful, safe, and happy year for you all.