To say food is a big part of my family is a huge understatement.
Ah Ma, my maternal grandma, can give any Nyonya restaurant a run for their money. Another aunt’s wantan mee stall is legendary in her neighbourhood, even a decade after her retirement. Closer to home, my Hakka dad is an ace at hearty Hakka dishes. And my mum is so good I wish she had her own cooking show – eat something once and she can replicate it in the kitchen.
But in every family, there is always one black sheep. Clearly, I did not inherit the cooking DNA: for most of my life, I couldn’t even properly fry a sunny side up egg.
What I did inherit, though, was the family love of eating. When I studied at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, I ate my way through nasi kandar, char kuay teow and cendol. None of my friends were surprised that, when I started out as a writer, I wrote about food (and still do, on occasion). Resigned to the fact that food would always be a spectator sport, I once even wrote a self-mocking article titled Me, cook? Never!
Then in 2015 fate took a twist.
At the same time I bought my own apartment in KL, a major client went through a business restructuring exercise and stopped giving me regular work. With the sudden deficit, I began worrying if I would have enough income to pay off my monthly instalments. In my panic-stricken scramble for solutions, a passing comment by a homemaker friend struck a chord: Cooking at home saves you a ton of money.
By chance, that night, I stumbled upon a youtube video of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef Junior. Watching the kids whip up haute cuisine in record time, I was mortified. Even a 10-year-old could do better than me! It was also very entertaining. I finished the entire season in two days and progressed to other cooking shows, in the process discovering that there is a host of Internet celebrity chefs who offer cooking tutorials: Laura in the Kitchen for simple-to-follow Western cooking, VahChef for demystified Indian cuisine, Alex French Guy Cooking for creative fusion … I could go on and on.
Before anyone could say “Hey what’s cooking?”, my kitchen experiments had become a full-blown love affair. I discovered that, with a little creativity, you can give leftovers a second lease of life (stale bread + ham + egg + cheese = breakfast casserole, anyone?).
I particularly enjoyed “rescuing” about-to-expire food (crush stale digestive biscuits for fruit crumble?). By the sixth month of intense cooking, I was doing more cooking than writing on some days (please don’t tell my clients), and subjecting friends to my cooking experiments every week.
There was just one last thing. I had yet to cook a meal that would please my parents. I wanted them to know that they’ve inspired me to cook but at the same time I also wanted them to know that I have worked hard to create my own cooking style. The challenge was, Dad doesn’t like spicy food (a problem because most of the cooking I do involves chilli) and both prefer Chinese food, which I struggle with.
In my last trip home, I took the plunge. I decided that a fusion dish was the answer since it utilised Western cooking methods (which is my strong point for now) and had Asian flavours (which are acceptable to their palates).
I went for baked chicken. Nothing fussy, just rub the chicken with salt and pepper, brown it in the pan, then add Chinese rice wine to deglaze the drippings – clean simple pan-Asian flavours. Not to mention easy to pull off – just pop the lot into the oven with garlic and onions. Also, I didn’t want to go out of my way to buy something I’ll only use once in my life. A trait I inherited from my mum, incidentally.
On D-day, I set to work. As I prepped my ingredients, my parents walked past without making any comment; it was as if they knew the reason for my mission.
Forty minutes later, dinner was ready. My confidence began to swell as I took the baking dish out of the oven. The chicken smelled good.
Mum stopped at the table and peered over my shoulders. “Why you only use two upper chicken thighs? Enough for three people, meh?”
I stiffened, then said truthfully, “Scared you all won’t like it.”
Mum’s lips twitched. “If don’t like, then we go out and eat lor.”
I knew she was just teasing me, but my heart skipped a beat.
And then it was time for the litmus test. Dad ate first. I watched as he chewed thoughtfully.
“How?” I demanded.
“Good flavour. Chicken a bit too soft, but it could be the type of chicken you bought. I give you 80 marks.”
Phew! But then, Dad was always generous with praise when it came to his only daughter. Mum, on the other hand …
“Please don’t be too hard on me, ya?” I pleaded half-jokingly as Mum scooped up a piece of chicken.
“Not nice also have to swallow, right?” she said wryly.
I watched with bated breath as mum ate without any expression.
“Hmm, not enough gravy.”
I nearly dropped my fork in shock. Did I hear correctly? To all of you who are unfamiliar with the Asian we-never-compliment-our-children-directly school of thought, “not enough gravy” means “I like it enough to want more gravy” which is like a freaking back-handed compliment, OK?
Her next remark pulled the rug out from under my feet. “I give you 90 marks!”
I gasped – 90 marks from my mum, the hardest taskmaster I know? The person who, after commending me for coming second in class, would gruffly say, “Good work. Next term, try for No.1”? Someone whose approval means the world to me even at this ripe old age?
I felt 10 years old again, except that this time the praise was unconditional, wholehearted and full-on. Suddenly, I understood what it means when people say that hard-earned victories are the sweetest.
I know I will continue to improve and learn and be a better cook. But if anybody were to ask me what’s the most satisfactory meal I’ve ever cooked, that first-ever baked chicken I made for Mum and Dad will be hard to beat.
This is an abridged version of a story originally published under the column Navel Gazer, The Star