I'm currently reading "A Cook's Tour" by Les Halles executive chef (or more commonly known as bad boy chef), Anthony Bourdain and it's a really funny anthology of his travel stories while he was filming his Food Network Program of the same name. In the book and TV series, he travels all over the world in search of the perfect meal. I haven't finished the book yet but a few lines in the first few chapters tell me that he will not find his best meal anywhere in the world except home. Kinda cheesy I know, but don't you think it's true?
Ask anyone what his/her best food memory is, and most of the time, they won't tell you about the time they dined at a 5-star, molecular gastronomy restaurant that you have to get all starched up and dressed up for. My best (and warmest) food memories are simple yet so potent that I still remember them as if they just happened yesterday. They are also associated with family, childhood, friends and home. I think my numero uno food memory is my grandmother's home-made lychee agar (or what Americans know as jello) that's studded with real, plump lychees.
As a kid, I used to hang out at my maternal grandparents' house a lot because they lived right across the street from us. I would be part of a huge battalion consisting of my cousins because most of us lived within a 4 block radius from each other. I guess we were one of those families that can be considered to be "clannish", which is not necessarily a bad thing. My parents still live pretty near their siblings and see them practically every day because they work together at the business that my grandpa established. My cousins and I used to go swimming at my grandparent's huge pool and refuse to get out of the water until our nanny threatened to throw a snail into the pool. Once we have been coaxed or coerced out of the pool, we would stampede into the dining room, bundled up in towels, still dripping with chlorinated water, all famished and our "po-po" (Chinese for grandmother) would have a feast of goodies ready for us. My favorite goodie that she always made was the lychee agar. She always made them in special, pretty cupcake-sized plastic molds that has many patterns and in each precious agar was one (or two!) plump lychees suspended in the middle. Unlike American jello, agar is firmer and has more "bite" to it. It also requires more effort and time to make. Like millions of doting grandmas worldwide, she spoiled us rotten by letting us eat however much snacks we wanted! Recently, many relatives have been remarking on how similar my looks and mannerisms are to po-po's. I can only hope I've also inherited her patience, love and skills in the kitchen :)
I also remember our family delicious celebrations during Chinese New Year, piled high with succulent noodles (a Chinese symbol for longevity), freshly cooked meat dumplings (associated with wealth/prosperity) and tangerines (for luck). My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sister and I would be all clothed in our brand new garb and proceeded to assemble at my maternal grandparents house for a day of cooking, eating, playing, chatting and drunken silliness (for the adults). It's also a total bonus that I would get red packets filled with some money from all the adults, which is an awesome Chinese tradition! Haha. And of course, there are the tables brimming with piping hot Chinese-Indonesian dishes, including nasi goreng (fried rice), lightly steamed fish and heart-warming soups.
One Chinese New Year when I was only 6 or 7, I wanted to organize a gift exchange among everyone and I lugged along a big box of my most precious stuff to the grandparents'. The box contained my Lucky Luke comics, random dolls that my father "caught" in one of those cheesy arcade machines and various video tapes of Hong Kong cartoons. Of course, silly me failed miserably because no one else brought anything for me (after all, it's supposed to be a gift EXCHANGE). But fortunately, that meant I could keep all the kiddy stuff I brought.
Besides humongous family gatherings, I loved to shop with my mom at the markets in Central Jakarta (now known as Chinatown) on Sunday mornings. Usually, after the morning cartoons and pastries purchased the night before, my mom and I would make our way to the markets, just the two of us (my sister would eventually join in the revelry after she was old enough). My mom was and still is a prolific barterer. At every fruit/vegetable/meat/fish stand, she would argue and pick and flirt and reason her way to get groceries for ridiculously cheap prices. I remember walking around the stalls admiring the brilliant colors and distinct scents of piles after piles of fruit. Occasionally, one of the workers there would generously bribe me with a slice of mandarin orange or a succulent lychee so that I would ask my mom to buy me a bunch of it to eat at home.
Tagging along with my mom to the market also meant going to this particular knick-knack shop I absolutely loved as a kid. The store was called "Gloria" (I think) and they'd offer cute little pencil cases, pretty sticker books and other things that only a child would cherish.
Trips to the market would also involve eating in Chinatown and my two favorite places are the Appolo Hainanese Chicken rice shop and the Jangkung fried kway tiaow stand. The Appolo chicken rice shop was my favorite restaurant ever and I particularly adored their perfectly cooked rice. The rice is special because it is not cooked in plain water but chicken stock. As with many places in Indonesia, everything is made from scratch. No canned or boxed chicken stock here! And the Hainanese-style chicken would be steamed so perfectly that the shredded chicken pieces that had been sprinkled with some sesame oil melted in my mouth. The shop itself was very bare and the decor consisted of only calendars that they probably got free of charge but it was just so cool!
The Jangkung fried kway tiaow stand had even less frills. The kitchen was an outdoor, open one what consisted of a hot gas flame with a tap somewhere and the only kitchen utensils used were the giant wok and metal spatula for frying the kway tiaow. The eating area was cramp but was always filled to the max. There was also only one cook who's nicknamed "Jangkung" which means skinny because he's as thin as a bean. He would skilfully fry up the glistening flat rice noodles with bean sprouts, chicken and shredded vegetables wearing only a white wife-beater top and cotton pants. Not very sanitary I know but he made the best kway tiaow in the whole city! And man! When you're waiting for your order to be cooked, the seductive smell of the kway tiaow being fried is enough to make you hungry! Jangkung has died since then from a heart attack (maybe he ate too much of his own product) and my parents have yet to find another kway tiaow shop that even comes close to his.
I suppose in the end, it doesn't matter what I ate as the perfect meal. Along with these saliva-inducing memories, there has always been my family who actually made them. If it weren't for the rowdy company of my parents, relatives and sister (or the quiet dignity of my po-po), I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much.