As children, we were never encouraged to cook, much less step into the kitchen. Sure, we knew where the kitchen was, but we knew this in the vague way that you know which direction north is, but you never really want to bet your life on it.
I remember once we were lured into the kitchen by the noise and wonderful smells. We stepped in to find the whole place bustling with activity. Pots clanged and fires blazed. At the big marble bench top, the cook was busy rolling out a thin sheet of dough that she then cut out into neat circles and filled with a teaspoon of filling from a pot of minced pork perfumed with shaoxin wine.
When the cook caught us loitering at the door, she shooed us away. “You’re bothering me! Get out, otherwise I’m telling your mother!”
Later at lunch, as we wolfed down the steaming baskets of pork dumplings, I remember wondering by what strange alchemy that unappetizing sheet of dough and pink meat had miraculously turned into this wondrous parcel of soft textures and flavours.
One of my mother’s favourite dinner table stories is about how she literally did not know how to boil water till the day after she got married. “I walked into the kitchen in the morning, turned on the tap and then I just stood there because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next! Can you imagine that?” she still asks to this day before bursting into peals of laughter.
“I’m surprised she even knew how to turn on the tap!” my brother Jack once whispered to me, which earned him a rap over the head by Mother who has the aural ability of a bat.
Which more or less describes a ridiculously privileged life in a nutshell. And it also explains why, over the years, Mother’s attempts to cook invariably ended with Father packing us all up in the car and taking us out to lunch at the Goodwood Park hotel.
You know how this story ends, I think.
One day, we all grew up and moved out of home. I ended up in Australia where I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t know how to cook. I couldn’t bear the thought of McDonalds. A lifetime of good home cooked meals had instilled in me a horror for fast food. But I also knew that I couldn’t subsist on a diet of Maggi mee, or a ham and cheese sandwich even if it was made with Provolone and honey-baked ham.
And that’s how I learnt to cook. I bought a Delia Smith cookbook, turned to page one and started from there. I learned how to boil an egg. Next, an omelette, then scrambled eggs. My first soufflé was a culinary triumph greater than the invention of the bread machine.
When I’d exhausted Delia, I started on Jamie Oliver. Then the Joy of Cooking. I’m currently working my way through Julia Child.
I became more confident. I peeled, chopped, sliced, and diced and then I stirred, opened and shut oven doors, lifted lids and tasted. Many times, I threw out entire pots of food and, once, an entire cake that didn’t rise because I’d forgotten to add baking powder.
But to my surprise, I loved cooking. Still do. I love the magic that comes from taking different raw ingredients and turning them into something hot and fragrant. At the end of a long day staring at the computer screen, nothing spells comfort and relief more than the idea of a pleasurable hour or so in front of the stove, letting the simple act of slowing stirring the pot release the stress of the day at the same time as the sweet smell of sautéed onions fills the apartment.
Sometimes, Saffy and Amanda come home after a long day at the office, grumpy, surly and not in a social mood at all. And then, I bring out to the table a steaming Le Creuset pot of beouf Bourgignon with buttered pasta on the table. Like a switch, the frowns turn into dreamy sighs.
“Oh God, this is just what my hips don’t need, but I don’t care,” Saffy said the other night as she scooped up a huge serving of rice pudding with gula melaka.
My sister, who was visiting, looked up from her heaped bowl and sighed with pleasure. “If Mother could see you now…”
“She’d probably not recognize me,” I said.
“She’d recognize this though,” Michelle said as she added an extra lashing of gula Melaka. “She always recognizes good home cooked food.”