Cooking from Memories

(Polish version: Kuchnia, Aug 2009)

Cooking from Memories

A foreign resident recreates the tastes of childhood in her Warsaw home.

It’s odd how things work out. I am a Malaysian. But it wasn’t until I’ve relocated to Warsaw with my Polish husband that I started to take interest in cooking Malaysian food. When moving here eight years ago, I fully intended to live like a local – to explore the indigenous flavours and to discover new ingredients and recipes. And not to pay indecent money for imported sweet potatoes, okra, curry paste or bean flour. At least, not on a regular basis.

While the mind was willing to adopt a new diet, the body, a creature of habits, had its own agenda. The body, or I, started missing the scent of rice and curry, the herby aromas wafting from a bowl of soup noodles, the sweet and savoury snacks sold in every street corner, and much more. Often after I had eaten, after I had my calorie allocation, my hunger was still not sated. I thought I could gain a quick fix from instant noodles, but the Vietnamese versions felt alien. My body, or I, was missing certain tastes. It came to a point when my stomach was growling but no local dishes could entice me. Marcin, my husband, had the same experience when we were living in Singapore. The exotic oriental spreads lost their appeal to someone pining for potatoes, bread and cheese. The plan had to change. And I set out to make the childhood food that my body, and I, missed.

I thumb through Malaysian cookbooks and cross out the recipes with ingredients not found in Poland, such as candlenut and alkaline water. And those with ingredients so pungent, like belacan (fermented fish and shrimp paste), that the smell would surely alienate my neighbours. I am left with dozens that do not require me to beg friends to bring ingredients from abroad. With every passing year, the shelves in Poland are filled with more exotica and the prices are no longer exorbitant. Though many Asian goods can be found in supermarkets, I revel in a trip to the bazaar next to the old stadium in Praga. I don’t share the language of the Vietnamese traders, but the crowd and chaos are very close approximation of the vibes of Malaysian markets.

As a multicultural country with three main ethnic groups, Malaysian food encompasses Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine. That, plus the outcome of natural and unself-conscious fusion of cooking techniques and ingredients among the three peoples. While living in Malaysia, I didn’t cook Malaysian. I didn’t have to. That’s because eating out is very much a way of life. There are many dishes that we don’t attempt at home but leave them in the capable hands of one-dish specialists who sell one or two main dishes day in day out. Most of them are found in unpretentious “kopitiam” and “restoran”. The former translates as “coffee shop”, where a wide range of soup noodles and rice-based dishes go with a strong cup of coffee or tea. “Restoran”, as you have guessed, is the Malay word for restaurant. There is no pomp and ceremony in these places. Top-notch, freshly made food is served in chipped ceramic dishes or plastic plates. Not only can you eat economically, you eat like a gourmand.

A prevalent substance in Malaysian recipes is the coconut. Each time I reach out for it, I hear my mother chiding, “It’s high in cholesterol and blocks the arteries.” That’s her way of saying “everything in moderation”. While coconut milk is common in shops here, getting them in a tin or carton is never as satisfying as straight from the shell. As children, we bought the coconut and the grocer cracked the shell into halves and grated the pulp with a purpose-built electrical scraper. At home, we used a muslin cloth to squeeze out the milky white liquid from the recently grated fruit. I regarded it as a tedious chore, but now I wouldn’t mind the inconvenience of having rivulets of white liquid crisscrossing the back of my hand as I extract the essence from the pulp.

Curries and other Malaysian meat stews rely on coconut milk for richness. Don’t be put off by the long ingredient list of such dishes. You just let the herbs, roots, spices and time work their magic. And the best thing with making your own spice pastes, instead of using bought ones, is you can adjust the heat to your preference by adding more or withholding the chilli.

On Facebook, I told a school friend that I was going to cook beef rendang (see recipe). Her response was, “OMG, are you masochistic?” You see, beef rendang, a meat stew, is a time-consuming dish we usually leave to the professionals. But I can vouch that with the aid of a blender, it’s not at all painful. Rendang introduces you to aromatic world of galangal and kaffir lime leaves. We had a kaffir lime plant in our garden. Often, we plucked the leaves not for the kitchen, but for the bath. Add these aromatic leaves to the bathtub and it’s instant aromatherapy. The recipe uses asam keping which can’t be found here. So I substituted it with tamarind, another souring agent. And fresh turmeric root has to be replaced with the powdered form. It also calls for desiccated coconut, which in Poland is sweetened. Therefore, you shouldn’t be heavy-handed with this or the dish will turn out too sweet.

Naturally, the coconut is indispensable in the sweets section. Whenever I feel homesick, kaya (see recipe) soothes the melancholy. A much-loved breakfast item, it is a spread for toasted white bread. Kaya also means “rich” in Malay. Indeed, the combination of eggs and coconut milks would cause any cardiologist to wag their fingers in consternation. Though a simple recipe, it is often bought from shops. It asks for plenty of patience for it requires an hour of stirring on a bain maire for the ingredients to thicken into a soft paste and the sugar to caramelise to give it a light krówka hue. To introduce a Polish angle, we replace white toast bread with kaiserki.

Another coconut-milk-rich treat my son and I enjoy is kuih bangkit (see recipe), a festive cookie made from tapioca flour. In the old days, these morsels were baked in charcoal ovens. Perfectly made ones are crispy and simply melt in the mouth. To shape the cookies, traditionally, we use wooden moulds craved with symbolic floral and animal motifs. The dough is squeezed into the holes and by firmly tapping the frame on a board, the edible artwork is released. If you are a kitchen gadget hunter, these moulds are novelty items to haul back from Malaysia or Singapore. Instead of the wooden moulds, you can use small-sized cookie cutters.

Of course, not everything is steep in coconut milk. Pauzhi (steam buns, see recipe) make regular appearances on our table. Yes, that’s another item usually left to the specialists. My mum often bought them as breakfast or late-night snacks. But they work well as starters or main courses. The yeast-dough is filled with savoury or sweet stuffing and placed in a tower of giant bamboo steamers to cook. Those I made, using Polish wheat flour, never turned out as white as those back home. Even the ones I found in Chinese restaurants in Warsaw carry a pale yellow shade. A Thai friend who runs a restaurant in the capital said it’s down to the flour. However, the effects are only visual. Flavour wise, my son, a pauzhi fan, is pleased with my efforts.

Eight years on, my taste buds are modified by the influences of my adopted home. My stomach can no longer handle firey curries. And after an absence from Poland, I pine for a heap of kasza gryczana. But to this Polish staple, I top with an Asian accent, replacing mushroom sauce with bonito flakes. My body has acclimatised, but I am grateful for the early days that spurred me into tackling my home cuisine. It seems odd that half-a-world away from my home country, I am making dishes that few of my family members and friends in Malaysia would bother to cook at home. It goes to show that memories of childhood foods are powerful motivators.

(Polish version: Kuchnia, Aug 2009)