One of my mother’s favourite dinner-table stories is how she literally did not know how to boil water till the day after she got married.
“I walked into the kitchen in the morning, turned on the tap and then I just stood there because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next! Can you imagine that?” she will ask and burst into peals of laughter.
My brother once whispered to me, “I’m surprised she even knew how to turn on the tap!”
Which more or less describes my mother’s privileged cocooned life in a nutshell. And it also explains why, over the years, her less-than-enthusiastic attempts to cook invariably ended with Father packing us all up in the car and taking us out to lunch at the Goodwood Park hotel.
As children, we were never encouraged to cook, much less step into the kitchen for fear that we would get in the way of the cook. We knew where the kitchen was, but we knew this in the vague way that you know which direction is north, but you never really want to bet your life on it.
I remember once wandering into the kitchen, attracted by the noise and wonderful smells. I stepped in to find the whole place bustling with activity. Pots clanged and fires blazed.
At the big marble bench top, Ah Ying the cook was busy rolling out what looked like a thin sheet of dough. She then cut out neat circles and scooped up a teaspoon of filling from a big pot of minced pork perfumed with shaoxing wine. (Even aged seven, I could tell my wines.)
When Ah Ying caught sight of me loitering at the door, she told me to go away. “You’re in the way! Get out!”
Later at lunch, as we wolfed down the steaming baskets of pork dumplings, I remember wondering by what strange magic that unappetising sheet of dough and pink meat had miraculously turned into this wondrous parcel of soft textures and flavours.
You know how this story ends, I think. One day, we all grew up and moved out of home. I ended up in Australia where I woke up one morning and realised that I didn’t know how to boil an egg.
I couldn’t bear the thought of McDonald’s. A lifetime of good home-cooked meals had instilled in me a horror for fast food. But I also knew that I couldn’t subsist on a diet of Maggi mee, or a ham-and-cheese sandwich even if it was made with Provolone and honey-baked ham.
And that’s how I learnt to cook. I bought a Delia Smith cookbook, turned to page one and started from there. I learned how to boil an egg. After a few tries, I progressed to an omelette and then scrambled eggs.
The day I attempted my first soufflé goes down in history as a culinary triumph greater than the invention of the bread machine.When I’d exhausted Delia, I went out and bought Jamie Oliver. Then The Joy of Cooking. I’m currently working my way through The Silver Spoon.
I became more confident. I peeled, chopped, sliced, and diced and then I stirred, opened and shut oven doors, lifted lids and tasted. Many times, I threw out entire pots of food that turned out to be duds and, once, an entire cake that didn’t rise because I’d forgotten to add baking powder.
To my surprise, I love cooking. I love the magic that came from taking all those different raw ingredients and turning them into something hot and fragrant. I love the simple pleasure of eating dinner at the kitchen table, while reading a book or Skyping a friend.
Sometimes, friends drop by for a meal. I love their surprised smiles as they arrive, expecting a pizza takeaway and find, instead, a steaming pot of beouf bourgignon with buttered pasta on the table.
At the end of a long day staring at the computer screen, nothing spells comfort and relief more than the idea of a pleasurable hour or so in front of the stove, letting the simple act of slowing stirring the pot release the stress of the day at the same time as the sweet smell of sautéed onions fills the apartment.
The other day, Saffy looked up from the bowl of spaghetti carbonara I’d made for lunch and sighed with pleasure. “If your Mother could only see you now.”
“She’d ask where I learnt to boil water.”
This story first appeared in 8 DAYS issue #1445 (Jun 28, 2018).