Thursday, 19 May 2011

Very first post and a little bit about me

When I am began toying with the idea of a food blog, my greatest anxiety was how to begin. Should I get straight into it with a recipe or some glossy pix of my latest restaurant adventure? Should I philosophize about food and what it means to me a la Marcel Proust and his petites madeleines? Should I make a recommendation or risk a stinging criticism? Where, oh where, does the baby food blogger begin?

It worried me. I do that – worry. Maybe that’s why I eat (a lot). Anyway…

I’m recently back from a holiday in England. More specifically, a holiday in Yorkshire. If you ask me where I come from, that’s what I’ll say – Yorkshire. And you will think of flat caps and whippets and coal mines and then you might think about strong cups of tea, fish and chips, black pudding and Yorkshire pudding. (I know I do – that said, not all the stereotypes are true and I may well do some debunking if I can stick with this blog long enough).

While I was in Yorkshire, I visited long-long family (it was my first time there in 26 years) which brought back memories – it seems I have decided to go the Proust-way – of when I was a child and of my late grandmother whom we called Nana.

Nana was a traditionalist. She wasn’t having any of ‘that foreign muck’. ‘Foreign muck’ could be anything from Chinese or Indian take-away to a croissant. Nana probably though even a Cornish pasties or Bath buns were too far south and therefore too exotic for her palate.

There was a Christmas Day that I well remember. We were at my aunt’s house and everyone was busy cooking. There was a massive turkey, roast potatoes, carrots, peas, Brussels sprouts (I’m amazed Nana didn’t object to those as foreign), sage and onion stuffing from a packet, gravy from granules and the usual Christmas pud and mince pies to follow. I am hazarding a guess that there was custard to go on the Christmas pud. Bird’s Custard. These days, my sauce of choice tends to be Bailey’s Irish Cream. (And I’m sure the Irishness of it would have distressed Nana no end.)

In the middle of the bustle - grown-ups cooking, kids playing with new toys - there is the sound of weeping. It’s Nana in the front room having a bit of a cry. Is she perhaps sentimental about the season? No. Is she missing my grandfather, departed these 20 years? No. Nana, what on earth can the matter be?

“You’ve forgotten the Yorkshires.”

So we had. Not one of the grown-ups had thought to include Yorkshire puddings on the Christmas menu. A crime so heinous as to make an old woman weep. You see, as Nana explained, “It isn’t Christmas without the Yorkshires.”

My aunt came to the rescue and rustled up the requisite batter. The oven was heated, the lard smoked and Yorkshire puddings were made. Christmas was saved. Nana smiled again. Hoorah!

I like my English food. I get sentimental about it. I love the quaint, often suggestive names (Toad-in-the-hole, Spotted Dick, faggots etc). Don’t get me started on the sweets and crisps of my childhood. You’ll find that I have a story about each one. Nana would have been proud.

Where I differ from Nana is that I absolutely delight in ‘foreign muck’. How could it be that a self-defining Yorkshire Rose such as myself should stray so far from all that dear Nana held to be true?

Well, let me take you to the other side of the world. To Singapore, which sits, as all school-children are told, on the Equator. Imagine an old house on the east coast of the island, shimmering in the midday humidity. The soundtrack is one of a million cicadas. Go out the back and there is an old lady in a green batik house-dress. She is crouching on the steps, a meat-cleaver in one of her bony brown hands and in front of her there is a chopping block (well, a large log really, but it serves a purpose) and on the chopping block is something soft and downy.

A little girl, me, appears and says, “What’s that, Nanny?”

And my grandmother, my other grandmother, replies, ‘It’s a duck.” And she holds up the head, blood still dripping from the neck, for me to see. It’s not a thing you forget in hurry. 35 years later it is still a clear, clear picture.

My grandmothers never met and this is probably a Good Thing. Their worlds were very different and the food they ate more so. Nanny, born in Malaysia, married in Singapore, lived in the kitchen. There was always something wonderful simmering on the stove. Beef rendang or nasi goreng or kari ayam. Pulut hitam – all palm sugar, black beans, coconut milk and the wonderfully special pandan leaf was my particular favourite. When we visited, once every couple of years, Nanny would take me to the market with her. I recall her haggling with the stall-keepers and we would come home, riding in the cab of a trishaw with our haul of little sweet pisang emas bananas, plastic bags of soy milk twisted into pyramids and secured with a rubber-band, curry puffs and kueh lapis of delicate rainbow stripes. Nanny was not afraid to get her hands dirty in the pursuit of delicious food (hence the duck) and I had some of my greatest food experiences in her kitchen – the night she taught me how to fold samosas and we made 400 tiny ones between us, or watching her take the catfish which my uncle and my brother had just caught and whip up a tasty sweet-and-sour fish.

Back in England, at school, I would talk about Singaporean food and be met with the blank stares of my classmates who thought it was freaky that I knew how to use chopsticks. Of course, this has all changed now and the Great Singapore Food Festival is famous the world-over.

To this day, I can having a craving for roast beef  and Branston Pickle on one day and the very next be lusting after some authentic roti prata or mee goreng. Add to this a fair bit of traveling while I was a child and now I am an adult and I like to think that my tastes are pretty diverse when it comes to cuisine.

I’d like for this blog to show that diversity, to ‘stride the blast’ where the differences lie. East/West, the quotidian/ the special, the bought/the made, the successes/the failures, the blah/ the wow!

I reserve the right to throw in a memory or two here and there, but promise, after today, to keep the navel-gazing to a minimum. Proust did it so much better anyway.

And, yes, from now on, there will be photographs.