K and I made a stop in Singapore for a day in between the Motherland and Boorloo. Singapore is food paradise, and, though I usually stick to three meals a day, every meal is better when you multiply it by itself. And so, it was three dishes that made up three meals in a day trip while we were there. There is no other conclusion to make other than to suggest it is a place to go with an eating plan. Happy Year of the Pig!!
Char Sui Pao; BBQ Pork Puff;Kueh Lapis
Chicken Rice; Popiah; Pork and Wonton Noodle
Curry Puff; Golden Pork; Noodle Soup
I have just returned to Boorloo after a week in south India. K and I went over for a friend’s wedding in Chennai, and, then made our way to my motherland of Kerala. In Kerala, we visited Kochi for a few hectic days, which were spent seeing the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and catching up with old friends and former colleagues.
For those who have not been, India is a world unto itself; and, within that, the South is its own thing; and, within that, Tamil Nadu is different from Kerala; and inside Kerala, Kochi is not quite the same as Trivandrum, which is different, yet again, from my ancestral village of Puthencurichy. Kochi though like my ancestral place is coastal, and, it is the trade in fish and coconut and spices that give the place its rhythm.
My relationship to India, and this part of myself, has changed over the years. It has, in a simple way, deepened and ripened each time I have visited, giving me a greater appreciation for what is there; and, a thankfulness that this is where we come from in a deep sense. This does not come at the cost of other forms of belonging, but it does have a sanctity that comes from deep engagement. It rewards continued visits, and returns; and, over time you grow with the place as well.
Often, I find the logic of India hard to get inside. This is especially the case because it is resistant to an outside other if not to those of us who return with a desire for connection. I had to overcome the nostalgia and the expectation. If at one stage I thought Mother India would be overjoyed to see a prodigal son returned, I have since learnt that you need to work on belonging here, just like you do anywhere. But, I am thankful that it is home in a deep sense, that I have a connection to this place; and not only for the obvious reasons for health, education, religion. India also makes sense in its intangible moments and quotidian pleasures. I have never had haircuts as good as those I have there, and, the sheer dexterity and expertise in any barber’s hands reminds me that maybe I have Indian hair after all. This time round at Chitra Hairdressers at Njaliparambu junction in Fort Kochi, my barber even made fun of my emerging bald patch. We laughed about it, but I am only thankful he did not also point towards my expanding waistline.
There are pleasures like this when it comes to food as well – 10c cups of chai spiked with cardamom, ginger, and lots of sugar that you have standing on the street; and, banana leaf breakfasts of idli, sambar, dosa, vadai, chutney. It is green not to have plates, and, like I have said before I am a contextual eater. It makes sense then, to eat vegetarian with one’s hands on something you can compost. And that is, to my mind, a type of perfection I will gladly travel for any time of day.
It has been a big week of eating, but it has been one that has left me asking questions:
1. Why isn’t more pate used in sandwiches here? For example, a mortadella sandwich but with pate in it.
2. Why isn’t the Vietnamese mayonnaise on banh mi sold at the supermarket, like Kewpie? I feel like we are missing out on a world of possibility.
3. Why isn’t there more collaborative dinners between Indian and Burmese chefs? They truly work well together.
4. Why isn’t pavlova rolled more often? The best thing about Swiss roll can be applied to meringue too.
5. Why is it so good to go to a place where they know your name? We all know the answer to being a local with the chef serving up your favourite dish as soon as you walk in the door (roast pork noodles are a case in point).
6. Why isn’t there more spiced rolls? I understand the pleasures of cinnamon, but why not allspice, nutmeg, saffron, or some combination of all of them.
7. Why isn’t cheese included in the default setting of bacon and egg rolls? They add moisture, and, the best kind of mouth feel.
And that is my week in eating and questioning with thanks to K and SD.
A little while ago I read Colin Ho and Nicholas Jordan’s article ‘Australians love Asian food, so why doesn’t it win as many awards as Italian?’ I found the article insightful and thought provoking. Not only do I agree with their line of questioning that unmasks the racial economics of food in Australia, but I thought their tone and approach were welcome. And so, I wanted to be in dialogue with them; to complement their writing with my own brief set of thoughts. From this, one could think about whether Asian food is a better fit for Australia than European or whether that simply re-inscribes a new power relation that continues to eras Indigenous presences. We could also ask ask whether money and awards are the best barometers of quality. Of course, they go part of the way to explaining good taste. But, the other aspect that matters is to think about popularity and whether this can be a way to have a good life. As an analogue, other arts, including literature, often try to boost the work of certain individuals through prizes and best-seller status. And yet, these might not be the books that linger longest, connect more truly with readers, or are spiritually meaningful for the authors who wrote them. In that way, we can carve out a space that is built on different foundations rather than simply arguing for the assimilation of Asian flavours into European standards of taste and hierarchy on a continent that is truly Aboriginal. This does not mean we should close our selves, and our palates and terroir, off to the Michelin guide. Rather, it is that we can create forms of criticism and understanding that engage the faculties in new and distinct ways and that connect to our individual traditions in a way that matters beyond ourselves. That is why pasta vs. noodles is the wrong question as is lamb ragu vs roast duck vs kangaroo. We must keep talking and tasting to find a true way forward rather than arguing for one side against another in a food fight that no-one can possibly win.