Taste - Family banquets

Taste - Family banquets

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

Look at the bounty on the table. There is a platter piled with Singapore fried noodles, festive in the yellowness of their turmeric. I know they will have some chilli heat because that’s how all the family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents — like them. Then there is the tureen of beef curry, offering comfort, creamy with coconut milk, yet finely tuned with the sharpness of curry leaf and woody spices. There is a multitude of condiments to go with it: pineapple sambal, cucumber salad, shrimp sambal, kalamansi lime and chilli. Large local prawns, shelled and deep-fried, sit at one corner of the table, the chilli sauce beside them to relieve their cloying sweetness.

But it’s all getting cold because here’s somebody bringing in a batch of satays from the charcoal brazier. We are urged to eat the satays while they’re hot and at their best, so everyone grabs a skewer and makes for the peanut sauce, sweet from sugar, sour from tamarind and lime, and hot with more chilli. Someone points out that there are also chunks of cucumber and salty coconut rice in squares to use as an excuse for grabbing more of the mouth-watering peanut sauce.

What about the Hainanese chicken rice? That can’t be neglected. And the casserole of Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs? I’m not keen on the intensity of this rendition of Buddha jumps over the wall. The roast duck with plum sauce is beautifully plated; I’m craving the sour taste but am a little shy to disturb the orderly look of the dish, so will wait until someone else attacks it first. It becomes too easy to ignore the humble dish of amaranth leaf; its prickliness against the tongue is really off -putting. The scratchiness is as unpleasant as lashes of the whip, and it’s not really softened by being cooked with fish and dried shrimp stock. I think, if I can keep far enough away from my mother, she won’t notice I haven’t eaten any greens.

I always loved the chaos and noise of large family gatherings. For one thing, the routines of the day were disrupted once again. There were always cousins to play with and we children weren’t under the constant scrutiny of adult supervisors. How, I did wonder, was I meant to navigate this potluck arrangement on the banquet table? I would see people helping themselves to the sundry dishes, but how to know which dishes went with which? I didn’t like the taste when the sauce from the lion’s head meatballs mixed with the beef curry. So were the dishes supposed to be considered as if they were sitting on their own? What about the repetition of ingredients: could the cucumber in the pickle be dipped in the peanut sauce? No, it didn’t taste quite right like that. Where is the logic of progression in this meal? Why are there such jarring and disparate tastes?

I’ve come to rethink what I then saw as a confusing proliferation of dishes. The pleasure lay in everyone bringing a dish they took pride in. The happiness came from sharing the table and enjoying each other’s company. And, while I’ve been critiquing the choice of menu, I’ve forgotten the particular reason for the get-together.

There isn’t always a rational order to things, but reason does lie somewhere. It’s a matter of finding the level at which logical or rational order exists. It’s futile to try to find it through examination of the dish combinations brought in a potluck context. The logic, if any, lies in the joy of the get-together. See how I like to trust there is a solution to everything; that I can find that last piece of the puzzle which will make everything fall into place? For example, there’s no such thing as a bad combination of ingredients or flavours: adjustments can always be made in intensity and balance to reach a palatable result. (However, taste might dictate that, although interesting, the dish is not great and should be scrapped, even though the puzzle of the combination has been solved.)

Recipes in this Chapter

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