FOOD as a topic is a complex matter. A person who claims to be a simple eater – “Why think so much, just enjoy!” – is turned into a philosopher when provided the opportunity, to talk about the foods he or she loves or hates.
Or in the Malaysian context: squabble over the origins of nasi lemak and chicken rice.
In a sense, we are all food experts because we eat to survive. The manner in which we eat reveals who we are, how we are similar and what makes us unique. Reflecting upon how we eat provides further insight about the forces that surround us and where we are at this time.
So much of what we enjoy and detest eating, is rooted in memory. Being away from home was particularly painful the first time I caught the flu: I craved rice congee, specifically the congee that was prepared by my mother.
This caused no small amount of frustration to well-intentioned and concerned friends, especially those who did not understand the concept of food attachment. Sometimes, one must leave what one takes for granted to come home again: I resigned myself to extra misery every time I was sick, and longed for the tastes that brought so much comfort.
What we yearn for when we are happy or miserable varies. A former flatmate craved takeaway pizza while she was sick with the flu. Other flatmates, with far more culinary skill, looked forward to better days: recovering from the flu meant being able to cook, and this inevitably meant better meals ahead.
Foods that fortify the soul do not always benefit the body. Some foods are more abundant in nutrients compared to others, but human beings are not made of flesh and blood alone. In times of stress, for better or for worse, we seek the foods that ground and comfort us.
A meal can be a reminder of someone we loved and lost, and depending on the context, induce pleasure or distress. (A group of friends, when a particularly unpleasant housemate moved out, celebrated by eating foods hated by the ex-housemate.)
This might explain how food is chemistry, practically and viscerally. Taste matters, but we remember with wistfulness the foods of our childhoods, especially the dishes that are lost as cooks pass on and ingredients are lost.
The cook makes a difference: two cooks who attempt the same recipe may produce different, yet equally tasty results. Different temperaments make for minute variations in cooking times, degree of heat, amounts of oil used, and whether an ingredient is coarsely or finely chopped.
Mastery over cooking skills determines whether one is able to converse with one’s ingredients to prepare a comforting meal. Sometimes, what is required of a cook for a dish to succeed is difficult and complex. Other times, keeping it simple is the hardest skill in cooking.
There are foods that one abhors for being too finely prepared: there are dishes that require some amount of roughness for texture and flavour. Other dishes require finesse, but this also depends on what we are taught to appreciate: baking breads involve imported butter to some, ghee to others, or an affection for the flavour of margarine.
Cooks understand why certain ingredients cannot be substituted; the more skilful cooks try to understand the tonality involved in replacing one ingredient with another.
Even so, replicating a dish without previously available ingredients – even when it is done skilfully – means cooking a dish that tastes of farewell. Each time we eat a dish that omits certain ingredients and flavours, we say goodbye to a past again and again.
We revisit our food values when we experience loss through food, rediscover how a food has grown in significance, or has lost its meaning at different points in time. Meals can remind us of kindness shown when we were in need. Other meals, attached to sad memories, carry pain.
Food is assurance: we know that healing has occurred when a dish that we associate with a bad memory, is no longer a cause for pain. This means that sufficient time has passed, even when the time that was required took close to a lifetime.
Our food values shift, just as we do. Love may be simple, but what food represents is complex.
The ability to transform how we eat, shows human beings are capable of evolution. Whether such evolution is for better or for worse: the possibility of something better, is a constant source of hope.
University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute and Crops for the Future are organising a food discussion with the chefs of Beta KL and Dewakan on Saturday, 2pm, at Chulan Tower. For details, email: firstname.lastname@example.org