IT’S that time of the year again when family members in three cities – Petaling Jaya, Singapore and Sydney – gather to commemorate the day our father left us, Aug 7, 2016, using the conferencing app Zoom.
It’s tradition to decide on a theme about Dad for these occasions, and this year we agreed on a subject that has kept us occupied during the Covid-19 pandemic: food.
Everyone had a lovely tale to tell because Dad was quite the foodie.
Big sister Beatrice remembered his liking for KFC, which was the only fried chicken he would eat, and its mashed potato with gravy.
Dad also loved Penang prawn mee and there’s the family anecdote about how he and our cousin Tony had a contest to see how many bowls they could eat. That took place when I was about 10 years old during one of our annual Christmas visits to Singapore.
The “battle” took so long I went to sleep in the car and I don’t remember who won.
The grandchildren recalled his delight over classic nasi lemak bungkus as well as shellfish like blood cockles, lala and balitong. The sea snail requires a special technique to suck out the flesh from the sharp end of the shell – Dad was a pro at it.
He also had a sweet tooth and loved onde-onde, ice cream and jelly beans. Dad, who was diabetic, could argue for keeping a stash of Jelly Bellies next to him so he could pop a couple whenever he felt a bout of hypoglycaemia coming on.
Dad also had a great fondness for steamed sweet potatoes and yam, which we found rather strange because we thought he would dislike food that he, as a teenager, had to eat a lot of while hiding on Batam Island during the Japanese Occupation.
Another thing that he enjoyed enormously: his liquor! A gift of beer or, better yet, a bottle of Johnny Walker or Chivas Regal would bring a big grin to his face. In his last years, he grew to like the sweet, delicate flavour of Choya, a brand of Japanese plum wine.
As my youngest sister Claire observed, “Dad was a man with a hearty and diverse appetite. We inherited our adventurous love for food from him and Mum”.
Indeed, our family’s cosmopolitan eating habits were influenced by people like Dad’s eldest brother-in-law, Michael Jensen, a British army colonel who retired in Singapore. We always stayed in his house during Christmas visits and breakfast was toast with eggs and bacon. We learned proper Mat Salleh table manners there, which Dad enforced at home.
Dad had a thing for Indian food, possibly because he and Mum had several very close Indian friends. High on his yummy list were triangle potato curry puffs (which Claire would buy back in bulk whenever she visited from Singapore), tosai, idiappam and banana leaf rice.
That my siblings and I grew up eating such a wide range of cuisines was actually quite unusual for a Chinese family during the 1960s and 1970s. It was much later that we discovered how special that was when our friends told us they ate only Chinese food growing up.
And Dad simply adored durians. We always knew it was durian season when a lorry would stop at our gate to unload baskets of the fruit direct from the orchard. He had a special wooden stake to pry open the fruit while we kids watched with great anticipation. We ate durian with mangosteen which had a double whammy effect: stinky breath and purple stains on fingers and clothes.
Every feast ended with a round of salt water (to cool the durian’s “heatiness”, according to Mum) drunk from an empty shell.
In his twilight years, Dad had to eat his pre-opened durian in polystyrene boxes bought from the supermarket because, tragically, none of us learned the art of opening the thorny fruit.
Dad did not just enjoy eating, he often tried growing and rearing his food. In every house we lived in that had a good sized garden, he would grow vegetables, papaya and coconut. We had one solitary palm tree but we loved it to bits because it gave us deliciously fragrant coconuts.
He tried growing sugarcane too, and it tasted sweet-salty because he believed in natural fertiliser, aka his own urine (I kid you not!), and he reared chickens and even geese, but the latter were such foul and aggressive creatures that the family begged Dad to get rid of them.
Such were the memories and laughter we shared during our three-city memorial on Saturday.
But as always, the gathering was tinged with a profound sense of loss for our dad and granddad. For me, there was also another layer of emotion, one of deep regret.
After my retirement a year ago, I found my way back to my kitchen and rediscovered the joy of cooking and baking. And many, many times, whenever I turned out a really good dish, I wished Dad were here to taste it.
I wished I had returned to the kitchen earlier and made more effort to cook his favourite dishes like shepherd’s pie and steak and kidney pie. I think his sweet tooth would have liked recipes I found on the Internet like lemon almond cake.
Not only that, I could have made him red wine chicken mee sua (a classic dish from the Fujian province of China, from where his parents emigrated), a decent bowl of prawn mee and congee which he loved and found much easier to eat after losing many teeth as he got older.
Since March, when the movement control order was first imposed, I have been baking all my bread and have stopped buying commercial loaves. Dad liked wholemeal and multigrain bread and I would have been so proud to see him enjoying my bread at breakfast.
What’s more, I think Dad would have liked Korean cuisine. He didn’t take to Japanese food which he found bland, but I also think he was biased because he never could quite forgive the Japanese for their wartime atrocities.
But Korean food is something else. In my view, it has a lot more variety, creativity and flavour. Thanks to my love for many things Korean, I cook Korean too and I have ingredients like kimchi, dried pollack and bulgogi sauce in my kitchen that would have been unheard of a year ago.
I can make a mean soondubu jigae, a spicy soft tofu stew, and a really terrific honey butter fried chicken which Dad might have liked even better than KFC.
Dear, dear Dad, I am so sorry I missed the chance to cook for you. I pray you are enjoying rivers of plum wine and/or brandy, baskets of durian and everything your palate fancies in heaven with a full set of strong white teeth.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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