COMMENTARY, Dec 31 – Food is a personal journey. This is what 2021 tasted like, for me.
During the first part of the year, when the lockdown was still in place, many of us got used to cooking or ordering a meal for one.
When you have been home alone for many a month, separated from family and friends, from loved ones, you adapt. Reunion dinner this past Chinese New Year, for instance, was spent reminiscing about reunion dinners past, when everyone could gather at the same table.
There are benefits, however, to having to eat alone: You learn to make a new friend… with yourself. You learn to take it slow, a lesson picked up from eating mindfully at ramen shops in Japan (but more on this, later).
Every bite is a meditation, a prayer of gratitude for the food we are blessed to have.
Still, it gets lonely. Perhaps this is why, then, after weeks of takeaway and deliveries and cooking at home, dining in feels like such a luxury. I will never take being able to saunter into a café for a sit-down brekkie for granted ever again.
In difficult times, we want meals that comfort and console us: A bowl of smooth congee, studded with morsels of salted egg and century egg. Chicken rice from my favourite stall where they start preparing my order the moment they see me approaching.
A soothing mouthfeel matters, be it a spoonful of creamy black glutinous rice tong sui or spongy, espresso-soaked tiramisù or the dashi-drenched crunch of agedashi dofu. These familiar textures tell us things will be okay.
Soups, in particular, fit the bill: from nutrient-rich purple Chinese spinach soup to a hearty seafood soup that will rescue us from the worst of the blues. This year, I have even learned to make my own simple superior stock at home; it has served as the base of many a last-minute soup!
That’s another lesson, you see. When things are tough, we have to learn not to squander our resources.
Cleaning out your fridge and freezer? We can turn the odds and ends in our pantry into a delectable “fried rice surprise” if we get creative. 2021 is the year of finding the fantastic in frugality.
Of course, we don’t always want to cook, even when we are stuck at home.
If 2020 was the year everyone turned to baking (didn’t it seem as though everyone you knew was making their own sourdough bread?), then 2021 is the year we finally realised we’d rather have others do it for us, especially now that food delivery is a way of life.
We’d order our double cheese croissants and our Italian bombolone. We’d devour our sourdough in the form of soft pretzels and fluffy Hainanese bread. Be it bagels, baos or babkas, 2021 was the year we never ran out of baked goodies to eat.
As the lockdown lifted, we began to dine out again. And when interstate travel was permitted once more, we began to venture further, tentatively at first and whilst following safety measures.
Though I had missed the taste of Melaka, the flavours of my hometown are never far away. Instead, for me, the true eye-opener of the year was discovering (or rediscovering) Perakian flavours with fresh eyes and an eager palate.
From roti bakar and authentic white coffee at Kong’s Kopitiam along Jalan Pasir Puteh to silken, slurp-worthy tau foo fa at Funny Mountain along Jalan Mustapa Al-Bakri, the simple pleasures of Ipoh never change.
We enjoy yong tau foo at the foot of the iconic Big Tree; we chase bowls of hor hee at Loke Wooi Kee with nostalgia-tinged crème caramel. Even back in KL, we can enjoy Perak-style chee cheong fun easily these days; nothing is so far away that it can’t come to you.
Unless it’s truly far, far away, that is.
Whether it’s Mexican-style breakfast burritos to fuel gruelling hikes in Patagonia or handcrafted artisanal jams made in the university town of Dunedin, every food memory was a longing, not just the now nearly forgotten tastes, but a longing for the way it was before.
I recall this tiny restaurant in Ushuaia, Argentina. It was at the very end of the world, it seems; there was no city further south. Any further and we’d be on the way to Antarctica.
Their queso frito, fried breaded local provoleta cheese served atop marinara sauce, burning my tongue as I took a bite but I couldn’t resist anyway. Their king crab stack with its ceviche like acidity but fresher, as though to remind me the crustacean was still in the ocean hours earlier.
Would I taste these flavours again? They seem so very far away, in 2021.
Japan, in particular, has been on my mind. The Land of the Rising Sun, where all four seasons had their own rhythms of feasting. Come spring, there are young sardines (shirasu) and fritters of “cherry blossom shrimp”(sakura ebi). Tender bamboo shoots are grilled over charcoal or enjoyed simply as takenoko gohan (or bamboo rice).
Summertime food entails a tantalising contrast of hot and cold, of smoke-infused yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) and of refreshing hiyashi chuka (chilled ramen noodles served with strips of ham, omelette, tomatoes and cucumber).
Autumn calls for apple pies, cinnamon doughnuts and strong black coffee. And when the temperature drops further, when there is snow on the ground, then Japan’s wintry menu includes bubbling vats of oden, bowls of shiruko (sweet adzuki bean soup) and a decadent slice of strawberry cake.
Oh, how I miss these seasonal treats!
Fortunately Japanese food can be found everywhere these days, from ramen shops and onigiri at convenience stores to even omakase specific restaurants. Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) isn’t what I miss the most.
No, the flavours I crave the most are those of our northern neighbour. For me, the Thai quintet of waan (sweet), briao (sour), ped (spicy), kem (salty) and kom (bitter) and the delicate balance of these flavours together are what reminds me that there is so much more good in this world we have yet to savour.
For dessert, I could make my own khao niao mamuang or mango sticky rice, a perfect pairing of glutinous rice, rich with coconut cream, and juicy, ripe mangoes. Or a tropical cherimoya salad, flecked with green cilantro leaves and red bird’s eye chillies, that would have you announcing like a Thai beverage commercial: “Sodchun!”
That’s the path to my heart, as the cliché goes, through my belly – by whetting my appetite and having me craving more.
What did 2021 taste like? If you asked me, it was a year of flavours both familiar and fresh, once forgotten and now found. It was a year of rediscovering our taste buds and our taste for life.
And as 2021 draws to a close, we give thanks for what we savoured, both bitter and sweet, and hope for more of the latter in the new year to come.
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