Serve In A Bowl
Moving out of my family home and moving into my rented apartment with Zeus, my boyfriend was my most significant act of courage. Courage because for the first time in my life, I wanted my relationship to work. And I know for this one to work, I cannot be living in my family home dominated by a primary religion that both demonises and rejects my sexuality.
Also, I did not want to wait until I turn 35 to buy a government subsidised housing.
At first, my apartment smelled of an odd blend of paint and cement mixed with fear and freedom. If I can bottle the scent of my new apartment, it would be a perfume called "This is it?" I wanted to build a home for my partner and myself, but little did I know this was hubris. You don't make a home. You work at it.
The act of moving out also demands a financial leap into faith. Can I afford to pay rent every month? Should my income taps dry up, can I swallow the bitter pill of moving back in with my parents? Suddenly budgeting and financial planning which had always been a theoretical thought experiment became a constant hands-on practice.
Having my own place freed me from what I perceived as cultural shackles. I could drink wine and eat bacon. At last, I am out of the constant gaze of God and my mum.
As such I resisted doing anything "Malay" or "Muslim" to my apartment, I rejected my roots. I didn't want Malay colours or textures. I refused oriental rugs or patterned carpets. I demanded white, grey, beige and turquoise. The latter tone more influenced by Scandinavian decor trends than my culture's association with green. The result is a stark house - without the soul.
Obsessed with our minimal decor, I was afraid of cooking an actual dish in our kitchenette - a word I loathe as it reminds me that I do not have a real kitchen - fearing cooking somehow would mess up the "aesthetics" of the house. I would make scrambled eggs (perfect creamy ones mind you), but I wouldn't dare make a dish that require oils, sauteing garlic or anything to do with frying.
Being a designer and an obsessive control freak I decided that I could buy and design my way into having a "home soul". I experimented with essential oils, burners, candles and diffusers. My house smelled like ylang-ylang mists, lavender oils, oud and frankincense. If scents are meant to trigger memories, this one reminded me of the perfume section of a duty-free outlet at the airport.
I thought I was free to decide for myself what home indeed is. But home is not just a place you define with throw pillows and marble paper towel holders.
Home is peace.
Rendang is a commanding dish. A tour de force. This concoction of coconut milk, chilli, ginger, shallots and every imaginable aromatic radiates a perfume so forceful it has the power to change an apartment.
To a home.
Only two things in the world could do that. Love and Rendang. The latter being the harder of the two to master.
Beyond its culinary virtue, cooking rendang was an exercise of utility - traditionally used to preserve meat in our unforgiving tropical climate before the arrival of refrigerators. And indeed, Rendang just tastes better a day or two later.
Any good Rendang paste starts with a mix of galangal, shallots, lemongrass, garlic, and chillies. The meat pieces are then slowly cooked in coconut milk and the paste mixed to the point of reduced velvety smoothness, allowing the meat to absorb all of the flavours of the ingredients. My family's version includes Kerisik - toasted coconut shavings that lean the dish towards an earthy character with a grained texture.
Like all fine Malay cuisines, the feat to get a good Rendang is to balance the salty and sweet, sour and heat. Tamarind, lime and sugar are the compounds you experiment with to achieve such a balance.
And like all things in life, achieving such a balance requires practice and patience.
I remember vividly during one Hari Raya night; my mum didn't make any Rendang. It was the year my dad cheated on her, and as punishment, my mum denied him and his children the best expression of her love. She made everything - Sambal Goreng Pengantin, (a spicy stir-fry of tofu, tempeh, prawns and chicken liver), Sayur Lodeh, (a coconut base vegetable broth best eaten with rice cakes), Sambal Prawns, and Ayam Masak Merah (chicken cooked in a reduction of tomatoes).
But she didn't make the Rendang.
My dad broke my mum's heart, but she would not acknowledge that hurt. Pride was her weakness.
Hari Raya was a time for forgiveness - but it will be many Hari Rayas before my mum forgave my dad. And it will take much more before my dad made peace with himself.
The comforting aroma of rendang did eventually arrive.
My mum's Rendang never tasted more divine.
The thing about milestones is that only when we get there, we realised what we had left behind. You can look back and try to understand, but you can never go back.
Rendang, to me, smells like home. It is a comforting memory of my past, reminding me of my roots. Of course, Rendang was not made at home all the time. Memories can be deceptive that way, but also deceptively cruel.
I eventually did make something in my kitchenette. I was hungry. And dying to test out the rigours of my induction hobs.
So I decided to make chicken soup. Not just any kind of chicken soup, but a chicken soup that requires you to saute and caramelise onions in butter till it turns a deep brown. Caramelised onions have the beautiful odoriferous side effect of creating new memories.
For the first time in ages, my apartment smelled of something not manufactured.
After you get the buttered caramelised onions suitably translucent, add chicken stock. If you are feeling particularly industrious, you can make your stock from scratch. If not, stick with unsalted boxed chicken stock.
Bring the stock and caramelised onion mixture to a soft boil then add your choice vegetables and chicken meat, preferably with chicken skin still on. Skinless chicken breasts do not belong here.
Don't forget to season the soup with appropriate amounts of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Serve in a bowl.
Often we hold onto stories about ourselves because they are comforting. They make us more worthy. More human. We become our self-saboteur. We have a vision for what we think our lives should be and that propels us forward. But a desperate need for validation and familiarity that keeps us still.
Rendang is that story I held on to for the longest time.
Until that first bowl of chicken soup.