SINGAPORE - When I was little, my mother banned me from the kitchen. She believed firmly that a woman's place was anywhere but there, and had ambitions for her two daughters. Not for us the life of a chue farn por, the Cantonese phrase that translates loosely and derisively to "cooking woman".
So we weren't supposed to be able to cook or to even be interested in cooking. We were supposed to do "more important things".
One of the most important things I do now is cook. I do it as part of my job but also to nourish myself and hopefully to give pleasure to my friends.
Back in the day, when my mother discovered I was a freak of nature who did not cry when peeling onions, she put me to work peeling shallots for the spice pastes she made for curries and mee siam. I also picked the tails off beansprouts. For our Chinese New Year open house, I'd prep kilograms of shallots and beansprouts, with no end in sight.
The drudgery of these chores, I think, was meant to put me off cooking forever.
Her plan didn't work. I was fascinated by how aromatic the spice pastes became when fried slowly in the wok until the oil separated from the rempah. I loved how flour, butter, eggs and sugar became a cake. Loved the long stirring that transformed eggs and coconut milk, perfumed by pandan leaves, into kaya.
I'm pretty sure she was dismayed when I chose home economics in secondary school. Wood working was more useful, surely?
Once I got beyond making toast and instant noodles at home, and into weekly cooking classes, there was really no point trying to stop my kitchen invasion.
I remember how proud I felt when our teacher praised my cooking and I could never wait to take my food home and have my mother taste it. My friend Ying Ying would come over and we'd replicate the cakes and curry puffs we learnt to make in class; swapping out curried potatoes for sardines in the puffs, or adding a lot more raisins and glace cherries to the cake batter.
My mother finally let me in. She talked to me about ingredients, let me tag along on trips to the market, gave me more interesting things to do in the kitchen. We still talk about cooking, about how to recreate things we eat in restaurants.
Some things I started doing as a kid I still do now.
There was a radio programme I loved, and the host would feature recipes for char siew pau or bread or stews. Listeners could write in for copies of the recipes and I had thick piles of them. My aunt gave me a cookbook by British home economist Marguerite Patten, which opened up an amazing world to me.
I have hundreds of cookbooks today. I want very much to tell tidying up guru Marie Kondo to take her advice about having "30 books or fewer" and shove it. All my books spark joy, thank you.
Armed with my lone cookbook and those piles of recipes, I compiled fantasy menus, lists of things I would cook if I could have people over. That list is now on my phone and I update it obsessively. I have one for the things I want to cook for this column too.
When I went away to university, the basic cooking skills became really handy because my father took one look at the university dorm room and decided I could not possibly live there. So I shared an apartment - and kitchen - with two other students off campus. I'm not sure who was more relieved, my father or me. I made simple meals for myself and learnt about seasonality in a food-mad town.
My mother sent me care packages of spice pastes and dried foods, and I loved cooking for my friends. We'd do supermarket runs at 3am, when fresh trays of meat would be laid out. I'd cook things like beef rendang and pancakes for supper. My second year in university, I roasted a 12kg turkey for Thanksgiving, and made sweet potato pie. My stuffing recipe has not changed since then. I never stuff the bird. The stuffing cooks separately. Stove Top brand, kielbasa sausage, chestnuts and chunks of green apple, always.
When I moved into my own apartment and had a car, I would go to Chinatown to shop for groceries every Friday morning, after my lone 8am class. The produce there was always cheaper and fresher than in supermarkets. I would buy a whole chicken, debone it, pack the meat into smaller portions, and combine the bones with pork ones to make stock. Those 2 litres would last me a week - for soup, noodles or just to make extra stirfry gravy.
The hoarding of cookbooks started at that time, as did the watching of cooking shows on TV. I became more adventurous in my cooking and would fearlessly make stuff from American cooking doyenne Julia Child's books.
In university too, I made friends with guys who cooked. They were foreign students like me and yearned for a taste of home that Chinese restaurants in the United States could never provide. One Thanksgiving, Boon Khim made a turkey stuffed with glutinous rice, lup cheong, dried mushrooms and dried shrimps. It was the most delicious turkey ever. Seah made fantastic roast pork. Bernard and his roommate JoJo served us crispy chicken skin to gross us out, not knowing that decades later, it would become all the rage.
This week's recipe is one I came up with during asparagus season one year. Everywhere I looked, big bunches of spears were going for cheap. At Safeway, it was US$1 for a huge bunch. I bought one, went home, raided my stash of Mom's stuff and found dried scallops.
I fried the spears and rehydrated scallops with garlic and oyster sauce, and I don't know why, but at the last minute, decided to squeeze lemon juice over the veggies. It cut the richness of the oyster sauce and made the asparagus sing. I know what you're thinking - why not omit the oyster sauce and just have lemon juice? Well it's not the same. There needs to be a balance of rich and tart, that's what makes the dish.
As it turns out, asparagus from Mexico is in season now, and the fat spears are just the kind I like. I spy some white ones from Peru in my neighbourhood supermarket and get them too.
Maybe I'll cook the dish for my friends.
Many of them - men and women - are serious cooks. There is never any talk about whether kitchen duties should be relegated to one sex or the other. We are way past that kind of nonsense.
We're all just trying to make delicious food. We're trying to figure out if sous vide or reverse sear is better for a steak. We're trying to shoehorn a meat smoker/Inka charcoal oven/dry ageing cabinet into our homes.
You could say my mother's plans went completely haywire. But by insisting that we think macro, my parents gave my sister and me the best gift, one that many women in the world still do not have - the wherewithal to be exactly who we want to be.
I am proud to be a chue farn por.
- 3 dried scallops, 25 to 30g (optional)
- 2 large cloves garlic
- 750 to 800g asparagus
- 1 Tbs grapeseed or other cooking oil
- 1 Tbs oyster sauce
- 1 lemon
1. About four hours or the night before cooking, rinse the dried scallops under running water, place in a bowl and cover with water. Let soak at room temperature until just before cooking. Before cooking, drain the scallops and shred them with clean fingers. Set aside.
2. Peel and chop the garlic, set aside.
3. Rinse the asparagus under running water and pat dry. Cut off and discard the bottom 1cm of the stem. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the skin off the asparagus starting from the middle of the spear. Cut into 5 to 6cm pieces on the diagonal, separating the stems from the tips in two colanders.
4. Heat the oil in a deep pan over medium high until the surface shimmers. Add the asparagus stems and the shredded scallops, if using. Cook for 2 minutes, moving the ingredients in the pan constantly. Add the chopped garlic, cook 30 seconds. Then throw in the asparagus tips and cook 1 minute.
5. Add the oyster sauce and cook at least another minute, or until the asparagus is tender. Before turning the heat off, cut the lemon in half, remove the seeds and squeeze the juice onto the stirfry. Give it a stir, turn off the heat and scoop onto a serving plate. Serve immediately.
Serves four to six with rice and other dishes.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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