I find comfort in smells, kawan kawan. Good smells, of course. Musky aftershave colognes that titillate, feminine fragrances that when inhaled send triggers of happy thoughts of summer days and girly nights out, the clean and crisp smell of newly laundered sheets and clothes, aromas released by spices being heated in a frying pan, the confectionary perfume of cakes baking in the oven. These are a few of my favourite smells….
However, my most favourite smell of all has to be the fragrance of rice being cooked. Did you know that rice has a perfume of its own, kawan kawan? This beautiful aroma is released when the rice grains are almost cooked. It permeates the house just like coffee being brewed in the morning does.
Rice, being the staple carb in my family, features in every meal, especially at dinner time. Dinner is a whole family affair, announcing the return of the patriarch, my dad, from work and when homework and chores have been completed. Dinner is when my sisters, both parents and I get to sit down ensemble to chat, discuss, argue and converse at the wooden table in the kitchen with its tiled top where we all convene for meal times. My mother would have prepared a soup – a clear stock of some meat variety, a dish of sautéed chinese greens, a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork stir fried with another variety of vegetable and/or a dish of steamed fish with slivers of ginger, soya sauce and sesame oil. Sometimes, she fries the fish that has been seasoned with a little salt and tumeric which turns the oil she fries them in to a yellow river. This is her tweak on the signature Malay dish called ikan panggang, a type of grilled fish. For this dish, she will have prepared a dipping sauce infused with lime, sugar, minced chilli peppers and garlic. All these dishes are eaten with a bowl of white rice, with the soup served in individual little bowls to be eaten at the same time.
I know when dinner time is approaching just by the smell of rice permeating the house. This is shortly before the click of the on/off button on the rice cooker, signally that the rice is done. A little hole on the lid of the rice cooker lets out the steam which is the element that cooks the rice, the steam which is produced by the remnants of what water is left that is required to cook any rice. The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed by every rice kernel.
I was feeling a little lost and displaced again the other day. I don’t know what had caused this feeling, I only knew that I wanted some home cooked comfort food. I had been doing a little voluntary work at the secondary school, helping some students with their English. A Korean girl that I was assigned to had been all but receptive of my role. I had sensed by sitting next to her and through my failed attempts to make conversation that only produced monosyllabic answers that she not only resented my presence but also resented the fact that she had been transplanted from her country to a harsh and foreign place where she doesn’t speak the language and where she has to be taught in a tongue that she finds hard to decipher. My heart went out to this girl because not only is it difficult to be uprooted from what you know, to be transplanted to an unfamiliar territory which can seem hostile because of a language gap and then to have to endure an education in a language that you are not wholly comfortable in, couple that with raging hormones which can cause confusion and irrational mood swings. Not a great combination, my friends.
I was told by her teacher that she is an intelligent girl when she wants to be. One manifests intelligence in one’s tongue because one knows what words and phrases to use in a conversation, discussion or argument. It is a challenge to show how intelligent you are when you don’t fully understand your medium of instruction, let alone having to express yourself in this foreign tongue. When expressing yourself in your mother tongue, you can be eloquent, elegant and intelligible. In a foreign tongue, you risk sounding gauche, awkward and frustrated because the words don’t seem to roll off your tongue like they ought to….. in your language.
At the appartement later, whilst preparing dinner and waiting for the rice cooker to sound her familiar click signalling that the rice is ready, I was suddenly overcome by a throng of homesickness. It was the fragrance released by the rice that caused me to feel this way, it occurred to me later. Another reason could be my feeling terribly sorry for the Korean girl that spurred this feeling of homesickness on. Standing next to the rice cooker, I inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma. I felt how good it is to be able to recreate this sense of childhood comfort. The fragrance of the rice represented home and hearth, it symbolised the security of the familial space, a haven where I can be myself, let my hair down and put my feet up. I was glad that in a foreign land, I was able to find this little piece of heaven.
For the Italian, it is the aroma of the tomato sauce simmering or the fragrance of the bell peppers stewing that bring him home. For my children, it is a mélange of the rice cooking one day or the pasta boiling on another which also emits a unique perfume of its own, both recreating the sense of home for them .
That night, I had the rice ready, and a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes to accompany the rice. This very easy to prepare dish is called Fānjiādàn 蕃茄蛋
in Mandarin and is really a very typical rustic dish. It is eaten a lot in Taiwan and in SE Asia.
This is one of my favourite comfort food, kawan kawan. Surprisingly, this dish is also much loved by la grande and the Itlalian. It is what SS remembers eating as a child when life was just the two of us. Sadly, I have yet to pass this love completely to RN who endures this scrambled egg dish but is not totally enamoured by it. She only eats eggs if they are white! I might cook this dish with egg white only, la prochaine fois, mes amis!
I hope that those who are feeling displaced due to a recent uprooting are able to recreate a sense of home through a particular smell that they love coupled with a particular food that they enjoy. Eating dinner that night, I whispered a little prayer for the Korean girl who tugged at my heart strings, wishing her well and that somehow, in this jungle of foreign words, she is able to recreate a sense of home.