Monday, February 20, 2006

Comforting Food Memories

Comfort foods soothe mini-attacks of homesickness - or in this case salve the difficulties of new cities and brutish crowds. For me, my comfort foods are a mish-mash of Chinese and Western. Traditional comfort foods such as mashed potato, roast chicken or lasagne seem exotic to me - these are what you'd eat for special occassions.

Some of my comfort foods are:
Chicken curry made with Malaysian curry powder and a hint of belachan
Fried rice with bacon and egg
Egg-rice (daan faan)
Pork with potatoes and soya sauce (lou chi yeuk)
Steamed pork mince with preserved cabbage (ching chi yeuk)

When I was growing up, my mother attended a cake-baking course in the evenings after work. The whole extended family used to look forward to her coming back because she would usually have a slice or several of what she had helped make. Western style cakes where highly prized as exotic delicacies in Kuala Lumpur during the 1980's and very expensive; mainly because the ingredients (eggs, butter, cream, western fruits) where all imported.

I remember my mother sourcing and testing all manner of ovens (well, two) in her cake making endeavours. She'd already experimented with hand-held beaters (unsatisfactory) so invested in a Kenwood Chef. She had some success with what looked like a camp-oven - a round silver dome that sat on the floor with a glass viewport. It used to get very hot and my mother always cried at us to keep droplets of water away from the glass in case the rapid cooling cracked it. Finally she found the perfect baking oven with both upper and lower elements.

This beige and brown cube sat in the store room and presided over many date cakes, chiffon sponges, pizzas and breads. My mum was especially fond of making date cake (which as a child I never saw the appeal of those brown sticky loaves) and bread. I remember once my aunts were using the oven to make a cake. My mum had just come home and asked which tin they used to put the batter in as she saw that all of hers were still in the cupboards. Suddenly my aunts rushed to the store room as they realised they'd put a bright yellow plastic container into the hot oven. It came out looking like a muffin with lurid yellow frosting on the edge. It smelled good, if a little plasticky, but health-considerations meant we threw it out.

During my stay in Australia I started a book of personal mementos and recipes. My mother gave me two of her favourite cake recipes from her baking days. Today, whilst sampling the sushi at the Selfridges food hall, I spied a Walnut and Coffee cream cake. This kind of cake reminded me of my mother and the flavours that she likes in cakes and desserts. Of course this was far too unhealthy and sweet with its sugary buttercream frosting and not nearly nutty enough according to her recipe, but I thought of her when I tucked into my slice.


Chris Martini said...

Hurrah for comfort foods! Glad you mentioned the Chicken Curry with Balacan and the Minced Pork with Preserved Cabbage... its two of my comfort foods as well... Well they weren't always comfort foods but I have been with my Malaysian Chinese partner for 7 years now and these dishes have fast become part of our staple diet... The minced pork is so easy to make, I believe I prepare it better than my partner can now. I've also done the chicken curry with potato myself now as well. That is an interesting dish as there can be quite a wide variance in the taste depending on the brand and type of curry powder you use (I have found that the Adabi brand is the best), as well as the addition or omission of balacan. My partner also uses tamarind paste as well sometimes.
Its funny being that I am half Italian and half English and Irish, so my previous comfort foods like lasagne, pasta, mashed potatos etc; have become more exotic.

Sam said...

I don't remember that cake incident.. though I can imagine it happening. Where was during all these happenings? Probably Lego-ing.