"Gardening makes my heart bloom" -- mum

"The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat." -- Confucius

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Real food

I am interested in good food, cooked the slow way and served steaming hot, preferably three times a day. I blame my parents. Let me tell you why......

I grew up in tropical Malaysia with parents who were incredibly passionate about food. Most conversations would swirl around what dishes to eat or to cook, where to find the best ingredients or the best restaurant for a particular dish, how to cook such a dish and what subtleties of flavours to look out for.

My parents were fussy about food provenance and would go to great lengths to source the freshest produce. There were bone rattling trips on pot-holed roads to pick vegetables from a farm or select seafood ‘off the boat’ from a fishing village. Every outing was an adventure in tasting and sourcing ‘real’ food.

Earliest childhood memories were of harvesting fruit from my grandfather’s trees and of collecting warm eggs from my grandmother’s chickens. Once, my dad took me to a durian orchard at nightfall to wait for the fruit to drop off the trees! We sheltered in a wooden hut with the orchard owner and listened to the ‘thud’ of these huge spiky fruit hitting the ground from a great height.

On my most recent visit home, I overheard a mobile phone conversation my mum had with her greengrocer. She wanted some papayas and discussed at great length the preferred taste, colour, fragrance and texture of the fruit so that he would know exactly from which tree to harvest the fruit. How wonderful if this was a way of life everywhere else!

We ate ‘village chickens’ – chickens which roamed outdoors pecking at worms and greenery (they were caged at night for protection from snakes). When I eat these now, I would get confused about what I’m eating. The meat is dark, tasty and very lean, quite unlike the fatty, bloated chickens now available at the supermarkets.

My mum could grow anything (and still does) - we lived three floors up on the main street of a noisy, bustling town and one third of that flat was an oasis of lush greenery. Monkeys, birds and once, a civet cat found their way to our sanctuary. Dad’s friends wanted to cook the civet cat for ‘medicinal purposes’ but we fed it bananas and at dusk, released it back into the wild, next to the zoo.

Food and gardening were part of the fabric of my life. When I left home to further my education abroad, I could not cook but I knew without a doubt what real food should taste like. A lesson in how to cut up a whole chicken with a large cleaver (!) was the beginning of many little steps towards cooking for self and loved ones.

I Skyped my mum this morning. The first thing she asked was: ‘Have you eaten?’ followed by ‘What did you eat?’.  Later, I spoke with dad, you've guessed it......

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