Mum's sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Mum’s sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I take my family’s kitchen skills for granted.

I forget how much food and cooking knowledge I’ve gained purely through osmosis, and watching others do their thing.

Like many Malaysian Chinese families (or Asian families more generally?), we’ve always been big on feasting and special occasion meals. Wisely, my siblings and I also snagged partners who were similarly appreciative of sharing food and making meals meaningful.

My mum and dad have always been keen cooks, and my mum has taken formal cooking classes in a broad range of cuisines. She takes on the lion’s share of the household’s dinners, and we have a family dinner every Sunday night. Her collection of cookbooks is formidable, and it includes a lot of bilingual 1960s/70s books from Malaysia. Once upon a time, we used to have regular dinners for 40 or more people at our Brisbane house in Chapel Hill. It wasn’t that large a house, and the 1970s kitchen from which she and my dad produced massive feasts was tiny + very badly designed.

My brother is a chef; he’s been in the hospitality industry for over 20 years. He has worked at a whole range of restaurants, bistros, and cafes – in Brisbane, Melbourne, and around the UK. He’s currently in his cheffing dream job, one that allows him to get home in the afternoon so he can focus on gardening and having a life outside the industry. That said, he’s an obsessive breadmaker (and loves experimenting with sourdough and ciabatta), and loves crossing the back fence to bring us samples. This is a practice we encourage. Greatly.

My SIL is a qualified chef. Of course. She introduced us to the seductions of whole cauliflower mornay and excellent coleslaw. She joins my brother in culinary adventures, not to mention the incredible food hampers we are privileged to get every Christmas. C. also writes a food blog and has overall mad kitchen skills.

My husband is a great cook, he’s the obsessive genius behind our family’s novelty cake series. He’s the kind of person who can turn his hand to anything and, with vague instructions from the internet, make it a success. His Christmas puddings have all been excellent (traditional plum pudding, as well as chocolate), and I remember very fondly the meals he cooked for me when we were dating. They were fab, and – strangely enough – seemed inspired by 1970s Women’s Weekly cookbooks (e.g. beef stroganoff, prawn cocktails).

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I sometimes feel pushed out of the kitchen.

For her birthday the other week, my SIL requested my mum’s wonton noodle soup. Because of time pressures, I ended up being the one to finish making the wontons (with filling my mum had already prepared). Her filling consists of chopped fresh prawns and seasoned pork mince, and our gardens’ spring onions and coriander.

I perched on the kitchen stool, facing the mini-towers of floury wonton wrappers and aromatic bowl of filling. My mother showed me how she fills the wonton, and I suspect she dumbed it down for me because it wasn’t the fancy-pants multi-frill version that I know she does. When I asked her about whether I should put more pleats in them, she told me that it takes too much time and doesn’t really matter in the end (i.e. tastes the same).

Getting my hands into the mix and shaping the plump dumplings brought home to me how distanced I am these days from kitchen work and cooking. It felt quite foreign to spoon in the filling and press the skin shut. It was only after the 5th or 6th one that I started getting into the rhythm of the process.

I thought about how much I missed cooking.

Pre-kids, back in Brisbane, we used to have people over for long lunches and dinners, experiment with recipes and cuisines, and spend time meandering through specialty food shops. We used to grind our own spices and make up particular mixes. I remember whole weekends where we’d be prepping and cooking. It was so satisfying and I would be lost for hours in the blur of checking recipes, chopping, juicing, seasoning…and we’d be doing it together. It was damn fun.

Now, it’s more routine and rushed. Things are tied to the kids’ evening schedules and we try to cram in so much other stuff on weekends. For me especially, with working full-time, windows of cooking opportunity are rare.

Perhaps that’s a New Year’s resolution worth working on: creating more chances to be in the kitchen and to find the cooking zone again. It would probably make my mother happy.