Touch - Unusually foraged foodstuffs

Touch - Unusually foraged foodstuffs

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

I am, apparently, good at leading people on wild goose chases. There’s not always a clearly discernible goal in what I want to do ... I may have articulated the general direction I’m heading, but the fun is in the experiences encountered on the way. And these, in turn, can lead to strange new directions previously unconsidered. The title ‘Unusually foraged foodstuffs’ is a reflection of this eccentric method of mine. ‘Foraging’ needn’t necessarily mean hunting and seeking out edible items in the natural environment; I also take it to mean rummaging through my consciousness for events and memories that guide me to something edible.

From time to time, our family made excursions to plantations and estates. I’m not sure of the reason, for these weren’t exactly family-friendly pleasure trips. We sometimes went by jeep and I remember perching precariously on side benches in the backs of these trucks, clutching to the seat as we bumped along uneven dirt tracks. For all the lack of comfort of our chosen transport, it was exhilarating to feel such excitement as to what discoveries the trip might bring.

On one of those days we ended up in what might have been the quietest, stillest spot that could ever be imagined. Long avenues of trees, strictly ordered in straight lines, stretched before us. On approaching, we could see there were parallel downward grooves cut into the trunks and leading to containers. The subtle grey colouring of the trunks gave the impression they should be smooth, but they were, in fact, rough with the multitude of these grooves. When I looked more closely, I could see a white resin trickling down into the container. We were, of course, among rubber trees being tapped for their milk. The milk was collected and put into a larger container by people who’d covered themselves up from the relentless rays of the sun with large hats. My memory is of how quietly they proceeded through the trees.

When I saw the milk being poured into the larger container, I wanted to put my hand in. And, when I saw the rubber coagulated and being cut into smaller blocks, I wondered if it were edible. Remembering this now, I feel something that most resembles the milk and the resilient rubber texture is the flesh of young coconuts charred over open fires. These are sometimes found in stalls by the roadside in places like Kota Kinabalu. The heat that pours out when the coconut is opened, the extreme white and the sensation that I could bury myself in this pure whiteness fits my memory of the milk of rubber trees.

On other occasions, we would head uphill and come to a cocoa plantation. These seemed much more chaotic and action-filled places than the silent avenues of rubber trees. Perhaps because the workers weren’t dwarfed by the size of the trees, or because it was more labour intensive to pick the oval fruits, the people here chatted to each other while they moved among the trees. Knowing what sweet satisfaction was to be found in eating bars of chocolate, I naively believed the same of the fruit from which chocolate began. When the nubbly skinned cocoa was split open, there was some promise there: the flesh was smooth and a pale caramel. In its raw state it tasted like melon, without much of the sweetness and with none of the creamy melting richness of real chocolate! What it did remind me of were the chocolate ice blocks at school, made of cocoa: slightly grainy in the mouth, insipidly sweet and a mere watery reminder of what chocolate might be like. It is not the most satisfying of food memories, I have to admit.

Industrial manufacturing also provides me with memories to be foraged. I won’t be cowardly and not acknowledge how environmentally damaging and politically fraught the rise of the palm oil industry has been. But I can’t help that one of my formative memories is of roving through a palm oil factory. It must have been a rather small factory because the manufacturing area was located close to where the palms were growing. The large bunches of red berries had clumps of rough, dried fronds attached, which people pulled off the trees with claw-like poles. These clumps looked fun to roll around but I was much too shy and too small to manage it.

The next scene I picture is in the factory: vats full of boiling, viscous, dark red oil separating out from dirty, orange-brown liquid. I find the sight of liquid separating from a mass into thick, coloured oil intriguing (and not because it might be a technical mistake of the cook’s that has to be fixed). That process of extracting palm oil makes me think of thick curries such as rendang, where the fragrant oil that separates out is valued.

Recipes in this Chapter

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