According to my mother, I was a picky eater as a child.
“Terrible!” she remembered the other day at dinner. “It’s a good thing we had a cook because if I’d had to deal with your ridiculous dietary requirements, I would have taken you out for a car ride to Malaysia and left you there!”
This is how my mother talks. In terms of child abandonment.
“You would only eat carrots and no other vegetables,” she went on, even as she delicately picked up a mushroom with her silver chopsticks.
This was when my father pointed out this was not entirely true. “Remember, he went through a whole year eating only fried chicken wings and hard-boiled eggs?” he said, looking at me with the kind of unflinching affection that once led my mother to comment that Father was the only reason I hadn’t been hustled off to the orphanage before I hit kindergarten.
Like I said, this is how my mother talks. It’s a miracle I’m not in therapy.
Anyway, family legend has it that I even went through a phase when I refused to eat anything except bananas on rice with soya sauce dribbled over it — a concoction that seems so incredibly outrageous that it must have been true because no one could possibly have made that up.
But somewhere along the way, I grew out of my gastronomic peculiarities and eventually took part in normal family meals with such gusto that between primary 2 and 3, I gained 10 kilos and had to be put on a diet.
All this came back to me when my friend Tony visited recently from New York and in the middle of Tiong Bahru’s hawker centre, buffeted by the perfume of freshly fried carrot cake and roti prata, he announced that he wanted pizza. “Are there pizzas in Singapore?”
I stopped and looked him. Even Saffy paused to peer up at him. “You’ve just arrived from New York,” I said finally. “You have pizzas on every street corner. You’ve come all the way to Singapore to eat pizza? Seriously?”
Tony lifted his shoulders in a ‘What can you do?’ kind of shrug.
The same thing happened when Amanda caught up with a former work colleague, Caroline, a journalist from Paris. “I have a, how you say, craving for bouef Bourgignon!”
For days, it was all we could talk about. Amanda just couldn’t understand why anyone would come to Singapore and turn their nose up at the city’s glorious offerings of dim sum, salted egg yolk goodies and succulent roast meats for something they could eat every day at home.
For me, the joy of travelling has always come from dining on the local cuisine, discovering new ingredients, new flavours, new dishes. Leave it to my mother to reveal that when she went to Munich last year, she packed a jar of sambal to spread over her boiled sausages. “German food!” she exclaimed in a way that indicated the term said it all. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Of course, I sniffed. But then, a few weeks ago, I was holidaying in Istanbul. I ate my way through the local mezzes — grilled eggplants, barbequed skewers of beef, perfectly fried fish seasoned with nothing more than sea salt and squirts of lemon, and munched happily on pastries sweetened with honey and pistachios.
On the fifth day, I woke up with a craving for soy sauce. I tried to ignore it but it was still with me when I arrived in Paris two days later. A heavy dinner of garlicky escargots and a big bowl of bouillabaisse later, I still couldn’t shake it off. With every bite of the fabulous caramel macarons from Pierre Herme, I could sense the umami edge of soy hovering in the background. It was almost a physical ache.
Which is how the next day I found myself schlepping halfway across Paris to Chinatown when I practically inhaled a plate of char siew rice. Each bite of the salty sweet meat was like a hit of endorphins, each breath of the grainy perfume of cooked rice an addictive rush of... of something.
I couldn’t quite work out what it was till a week later when I was back in Singapore and queuing up for rojak at my favourite stall in Toa Payoh. Immersed in the smells and hustle of the coffee shop, I finally recognized what I’d felt back in that dimly lit Chinese restaurant in Paris.
It was the embrace of coming home.
And not eating any German food.