The crackle of crispy pork skin, the squish and give of a resilient fishball and the pungent tang of shrimp belachan are some of our local food memories. We may not remember the first time we ate such foods but sometimes, when we least expect it, a stray aroma or unexpected taste will trigger the oddest memory.
For me this happened after my family moved to New Zealand. I was only eleven when this happened and previously grew up in a house with my grandparents and aunts. My grandmother looked after the household and would prepare most of the meals with assistance from my aunts and my mother. When we moved, in this new and cold land, it was just the four of us. My health-conscious and time-short working mother modified the traditional dishes my grandmother used to take all day to make. One-pot meals were the new vogue in our household.
When I moved out I continued to cook in a odd mix of European and Chinese cuisine; my favourite dish during student days was bacon and egg fried rice -- then I rediscovered pork fat and pork belly. A recipe required the rendering of pork fat; the fragrant smell and crackling sound took me back to a childhood where I lived over the outdoor kitchen. My grandmother would secretly render pork fat during the day time when my mother worked and slip in this forbidden ingredient into her cooking, but only when she thought she could get away with it. It was forbidden in the house due to its unhealthy nature. Now whenever I smell, hear or taste pork crackling I think of my grandmother, my childhood house and the papaya tree in the backyard.
My family ran a small takeaway on weekends to supplement income and provide Malaysian/Singaporean-style food to the local community in Wellington, New Zealand. Of course my sister and I were pressed into working for our pocket money and spent one day a weekend clearing tables, doing the dishes, and taking orders.
My sister and I became adept at making trays and trays of wontons after school on Fridays. I think my mother thought that our small and nimble children’s fingers would be good at this. Every weekend, bags and bags of yellow noodles were ordered and my sister and I apportioned them into bowls for the laksa or loosened them for my mother to fry. I also had the job of making the fried rice -- to this day I don’t why she thought I was particularly suited to this dish but I remember her detailed instructions standing by my side; she taught me how to scramble the egg before adding the rice. It bubbles vigorously but this sound decreases over time; once it is silent it is overcooked. I learnt to wait for the right sound.
During opening hours, my mother was in charge of making the mee goreng and would stand for hours at the wok clanging her spatula and taking heed of all the endless variations customers requested: more chilli, no chilli, more fishcake, no fishcake, extra dry, extra wet, no egg, egg white only, etc. She taught me how to make mee goreng for it was a special dish that required deftness with heat, timing and sauce addition. Although I never graduated to cooking this for a customer, this and fried rice are the only two dishes she taught me standing by my side.
To this day I have a great fondness for noodles, especially mee goreng, and fried rice. I never used to know why, only that I would gravitate towards large bowls of pasta or noodles after a stressful week at work. I realise now that I seek comfort and solace in these foods for they remind me of the times that spent together with my mother. She is not verbally or physically expressive and showed her love and care in traditionally symbolic ways that I understood only after many years. I realise now that noodles and fried rice remind me of her love.
We never eat anything in isolation. We bring to the table everything that happened during our day, our week, our current mood and all our feelings at that moment. How something tastes is not just what we perceive on our tongue and nose but the processing of those senses into meaning through our memories. We’ve all experienced the nullification of taste when hearing bad or shocking news during eating. In all cases the taste of the food hasn’t changed but it is our perception of the taste, now coloured by unpleasant news, that has changed. Similarly we form positive taste-memories around happy times. Those memories are stored, re-processed and recalled again and again. The taste of something repeatedly eaten during happy times will subconsciously recall the actual event and all the associated positive emotions. So it’s not surprising that when feeling unhappy, many people start to crave food or tastes that make them subconsciously recall happier times.
Many foods, particularly certain combinations of carbohydrate-rich and fatty foods, elicit the release of satiety hormones and neurotransmitters; they make us feel full, satisfied and contented. Traditionally in the West these have been hearty and rich dishes like stews and lasagne. Here in Singapore our comfort foods may be chicken rice, or curry chicken with bread. Someone with Malay heritage may seek comfort in a big bowl of tulang merah.
What foods do you crave when feeling stressed or tired? What foods make you happy? What are your comfort foods? Were these foods always a special treat? Maybe you got to eat them only when a certain aunt would visit; or during special celebratory occassions?
What can you remember when you eat your comfort food? Who can you remember?