Plato was wrong. The food of the soul isn’t knowledge, it’s my mother’s braised duck in five spice, or perhaps her meen fan ko or pan mee, flour ‘noodles’ – kneaded, then torn into thin pieces and boiled in stock, two stalwart favourites from my childhood right up to now. Our relationship with food is complex, and complicated. Food as comfort, food as fuel, food as nostalgia, food as a gateway to other cultures, food that evokes emotions – it is never just food. The foods that you snacked on in your youth, cook in your adulthood, and crave when you’re homesick are as much a function of your own cultural references, geographical context, and personal memory as that of flavour and taste.
In the last ten years of my self-exile from Malaysia, I’ve managed to still the hunger pangs by receiving packets of sambal paste from my parents to cook up my own nasi lemak, or persuading friends to bring back pineapple tarts, mooncakes and other goodies at festival times, or when all else fails, visiting a local Malaysian restaurant in whichever city I happened to live in at the time. Not quite the same, but close enough when one is 15,000 miles away from home. There are, however, a few favourites that are impossible to get even a watery imitation of overseas, and these are some of the ones that I miss the most.
Mee hoon sotong
A dish of vermicelli noodles doused in a light brown broth filled with the complex, smoky flavours of beef and seafood, served with tender slices of braised pork, a few bits of cuttlefish and some green veg, this is one of my favourite breakfasts from the Pasar Besar (wet market) back home. The noodles are usually fried so they are warm and a little crispy on the edges before the soupy sauce is poured over it. I’ve been unable to find even an approximation of this dish in London, New York or Sydney, so if anyone knows or has an idea, please drop me a tip!
Char kuay teow
The most popular variant of this dish is the Penang version, but my favourite is from the hawker stall that used to be located in Temiang across from the temple. By a dark and grimy stall, the vendor would cook using firewood and copious amounts of dark soy sauce, resulting in a dish that was smoky in taste and almost black in colour, topped with sinful, crunchy, divine pieces of lard and bloody fresh cockles. A favourite place of my family’s for supper, we would ask him to add an extra egg and chilli, douse with liberal amounts of white pepper, pair with a homemade brew of cold herbal tea or barley water, then consume ravenously.
Giant pork buns
Familiar to dim sum connoisseurs around the world, steamed pork buns, filled with chopped up bits of meat, water chestnuts and other assorted (and unidentifiable) food stuffs used to be my go-to comfort food. There were few things in the world a fresh, hot, soft, juicy pork bun couldn’t solve, at least for the short term, but what I loved above all that was the giant pork buns. Double in size, and more importantly, with a whole, boiled quail egg buried inside it, like a creamy, delicious treasure.
Mum’s meen fan ko or pan mee
Yet another noodle-ish dish, and one that I can, if I try hard enough, find in Sydney, but my favourite version of this is the one my mum makes. I have memories of being given a small ball of sticky white dough to play with while she stood at the stove, patiently thinning out and tearing pieces of floury dough into a wok filled with simmering, fragrant chicken and anchovy stock. The flavours are simple – stock, fried onions, pepper – but the end result is a beautiful, steaming, soupy dish of goodness. In my household we add crispy fried onions and oil, white pepper, crunchy anchovy, prawns or pork slices and black vinegar – an influence of my dad’s Teochew heritage.
What are some of the foods that you miss from ‘back home’? Are they homecooked dishes, or regional food that isn’t readily accessible elsewhere? Share your thoughts in the comment sections below.
This post brought to you by A-Word-A-Week Challenge from A Word in Your Ear. Every week, Skinnywench will dip into her old Oxford English dictionary, and pick a random wordto blog about – either a picture or a story that best captures the meaning of that word. This week’s word: “Food.”