Smell ya later 2020
Anna and Chloe both share a bit of cooking nostalgia to send 2020 out with the pleasant smell of frying onions.
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For our last newsletter of 2020 Anna tells a story, an except from her play Don’t Sing in the Kitchen or You’ll Marry an Old Man, because stories are important and tell how we connect with the wider world; it is also a short story about recipes and learning to cook. Chloe ends the year on a family recipe for a warming vegetable soup.
Anna Sulan Masing
I remember my mother telling me that if you don’t know what to cook, start by frying some onions. The smell of frying onions allows you to daydream of what goes in next.
And so onions taught me how to cook.
I was in London, with not many friends, just Johnny really. And he worked a lot. Hungry, alone. The easily accessible European food no longer felt new and adventurous.
So I would fry onions. But then I wouldn't know what to do next. My mind wasn’t able to daydream, at least not then. So I would fry more onions. So many onions.
Cutting onions was my mother's meditation. Slowly, carefully. Standing at the kitchen bench. Onion tears dripping down her face. You knew not to disturb her when she was cutting onions. The sorrow before the art of dinner.
I think my mother used those moments to hide her actual tears. She would never let anyone see her face drop. For a long time I believed her only emotion was judgment, until I understood the onions.
When I was 16 it was:
”Why don’t you sit still and elegantly. No husband will want you if you twitch like that"
And then when I meet Johnny - “Aye ja, a white boy”.
Now it’s "why don’t you have babies Dayang?"
She was lonely. Now I see that. She only had us, her ungrateful children, who didn't know how hard she worked to get us all through school. Married to a civil servant whose quietness she tried not to rally against. My father's quietness, his pent up frustrations, smothered, behind a wall of 'properness'.
I think she took that time, every day to cry. Her onions understanding her like no one else could. Each layer peeling back a new hurt, a new lonely story from the week. Behind the pretense of cooking, she let out her despair. Silently crying. Her silence was so loud compared to my father’s quietness.
She used to tell me not to sing in the kitchen, or I would marry an old man - but I could never shut up, be silent, or quiet or still. Singing was a great way to keep up my constant monologue. Sometimes I wonder if she made up that saying, if really, she just wanted a moment of peace with her onions.
Onions. Eventually I got the confidence to move on from onions. I choose spices as my daydream. I bought all the spices that my mother used. I spent hours just smelling them, wondering when and where she used them.
I began the first real conversation with my mother that way. Actually, maybe it all started with Facebook. I should get Facebook to sponsor my food stall.
She had decided that Facebook was the way into the modern world. You know what mothers are like when they discover technology, so much intense learning. So many questions. So serious lah!
Slowly, with all us children to help, she managed to get herself organised, photos uploaded, settings set. Now all my statuses are ‘liked’. All my selfies have comments:
“Nice colour hair! But too sexy, all messy like that.” And of course the common comment “Smile more. You have such nice teeth”. This is to remind me that she had paid for them, I am sure; the teenage years of braces. I know she means this as a compliment. So I try to take pictures she would like. But, my back gets a little stiff every time I see a notification saying that she’s made a comment. Bracing myself. It gets tense in the place above your lower back, you know? I call it the ‘mum spot’.
I first messaged her asking about star anise – it's my favourite spice, it’s so punchy. You open a jar and the smell wafts over you. But if you wait a little bit, it’s also sweet on the nose; and then deep and grounded when in stews. And, of course, that aniseed-y numbing feeling. It’s a spice that uses all your senses.
Here in London, it reminds me of Christmas.
My friend Sarah makes a beautiful apple jelly with a star anise that is suspended in it. Every Christmas she gives a jar out to her friends. My first year in London, six months into being here, she gave me some. I cried, it looked so beautiful. And opening it and smelling that aniseed took me back to my childhood, when I saw my father first making rendang.
And star anise is oh, so, pretty; makes me feel my childhood, but tastes like my adulthood.
My mother’s response to my question was simply a recipe, with star anise.
I asked her about cinnamon, she responded with another recipe. I couldn’t get her to talk about the spices in detail, as individual scents. To her they had a holistic nature; they were part of other things. Her cinnamon recipe was a dessert - this beautiful sago dessert with coconut milk. She would add cinnamon, slightly unusual. Gula melaka (plam sugar) with cinnamon. And the way she presented it, all in separate little bowls, so pretty. It was her favourite dessert. The one we had only on special occasions. She cherished it, displayed it like a work of art.
Through this process of sharing recipes I began to understand her. Why she worshipped cinnamon. She held it as her gold, her desire. She associated it with desserts, the naughty thing she shouldn't eat too much of. She craved it and deprived herself of her desire.
It took me a while to understand her recipes - they were mainly lists, the order in which to add ingredients. When I responded asking for amounts, her replies were short and vague:
Nothing was a pinch in her kitchen.
This meant that for a full week I would cook the same dish, over and over again, trying to get it right.
When cinnamon appeared in my mother’s savoury dishes, it was like a flourish, used sparingly, at the end of the cooking process, to shine above the earthy flavours of a rendang. So it hit the nose, but barely settled on the tongue.
I tried her method but the scent of cinnamon was so sharply in my mother’s house that it stung my nose. I wanted to bring the smell of cinnamon down, I wanted to ground it.
That first year in London, I remember so clearly in a cafe, drinking my white americano. It was autumn, and the cake stand was full of apple cake, cinnamon waffles, cinnamon rolls. I felt suffocated. Like someone had sucked out the air around me. The scent of cakes compounded with a sense of home. I felt lost. I couldn't find myself. I stumbled out the door. Cinnamon is guilt to me. Guilt that I left my mother, for a white boy and moved halfway across the world.
I can’t not use cinnamon. But I use it differently. I use the same ingredients that she does, but in a different order. I decided to use the cinnamon at the beginning of recipes, and only in savoury dishes. It’s always pounded into the paste. Mixed with other spices and garlic, in my mortar and pestle. Bang, bang, bang! A touch of pepper. Stone against stone, until there is a thick paste to be fried off in the wok. Coating the beef. Cinnamon seeping into the fibres of the meat.
But of course, it all still starts with an onion. I’m less silent with my onion tears, I swear at them for making me cry.
This play was written as a one woman show, for my actor friend Safiah Durrham. She performed and cooked, and then fed the audience. The protagonist tells the story of coming to London from Malaysia, and setting up a food stall - that day, as she tells her story, she has signed her divorce papers and she addresses her choice of London as home, the idea of loneliness, family, belonging and food. “Don't sing in the kitchen or you’ll marry an old man” is an old Malay saying that Safiah remembers being told as a child - she’s not sure if it’s a real saying!
Colache but not Kolaches (actually Calabacitas)
I don’t remember the first time I ate what my family calls colache because I don’t remember ever not having it around. The warming mixture of zucchinis (courgettes) sauteed in onion and stewed with sweetcorn and tomatoes always makes me think of a family dinner.
When I went away to school, I searched for recipes for colache and didn’t come up with anything apart from Polish kolaches- a filled sweet bread. It wasn’t until I noticed colache in a colleague’s lunch that I learned of the dish’s full name: colache de calabacitas. It is a common weeknight staple in Mexico where it is more colloquially referred to as calabacitas.
For years I had thought colache was a dish specific to my grandmother’s family as I had only seen it at the family table. My knowledge of our Mexican heritage meant I knew our colache was associated with Mexican cuisine. But I had never seen colache or calabacitas on a menu in a Mexican restaurant so I never fully made the connection.
Now when I make colache not only does it make me nostalgic for big family dinners and the bickering over how to make the perfect version. I also find myself thinking about how assimilation obscures our relationship with heritage and how the commercial nature of restaurants narrows their ability to represent the way cuisine is experienced on a personal level. Ok, maybe I’m always thinking about these things, but it is nice to have something warm to eat while you process.
Colache de Calabacitas
Serves 6 as a side or 4 as a main
As with most ‘home’ recipes each household has their own version, in my family we like ours on the soupy-side so omit the stock if you prefer something dryer.
1-2 zucchini or other summer squash, diced or cut into half moons
1 tin sweet corn, drained, or 2-3 ears of corn
½ tin crushed tomatoes or 1-2 fresh
1 white or yellow onion, diced
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
250ml stock of your choice, or water
Pinch ground cumin
1 tsp dried mexican oregano, or ½ tsp ground
Salt and pepper to taste
Good glug of olive oil
Grated melty cheese of your choice
In a pot or heavy bottomed skillet, heat oil over medium-low heat. Sweat onion with oregano, salt and cumin until translucent. Add garlic and jalapeño, cook until garlic becomes fragrant and add zucchini, corn kernels and tomatoes. Cook until their juices begin to simmer then pour in stock or water. Taste for seasoning, bring to a simmer and cover for 10-20 minutes.
To serve add grated cheese to the bottom of a bowl, pour over calabacitas and then top with more grated cheese. I like to dip corn or flour tortillas into the broth as I eat and sometimes I’ll add a fried egg on top.
What Anna ate
It’s been a haphazard eating regime as I’ve been living at friends places for five months - am now, finally, in my own flat. And to add to that mix I’ve added in Odd Box, which is basically a surprise mix of vegetables and fruit! The idea that it would push me to cook new things. Which it has done.
Celeriac - my friend, Kathryn, who I was living with decided to roast this for three hours based on an Ottolenghi recipe. We had it as a pre-dinner snack. It was fine.
Persimmon - both Kathryn and I googled how to cook persimmon (I usually just eat it raw) and both found risotto recipe, with goats cheese. So we tried that. It was fine, but I won’t do that again.
Stewed apples - ok, this isn’t a new recipe. Just stewed apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey. Sometimes a pinch of salt and a crack of pepper. Breakfast or dessert snack.
My main discovery is that even things that are not that exciting to eat, are kinda fun to cook. Odd Box has become a no-risk problem solving task. And in a year with risk to just walk out the door, to take a ride on the tube, to walk into a supermarket… it’s a little fun.
Smart Mouth podcast: I love a good footnote so a podcast with footnotes is a win. Host Katherine Spiers delves into the history of guests’ favourite dishes. The conversations are always insightful and very funny. A few recent favourites are this festive episode about candy canes and an interview with Loretta Barrett Oden about diverse representation of Native American food.
This year I have found a lot of joy and relaxation looking at jelly cakes, my New Year’s resolution is to make more jelly cakes. You can read more about the trend from Bettina Makalintal on Vice.
Thank you so much to everyone that has helped us shape this first season of Sourced through your subscriptions, shares and encouragement. Our final 2020 send off will be our IG Live tutorial on Tuesday December 29. We’ll be reviewing answers to our 10-question interview series ‘The Ten’ with a special focus on the question: ‘How much did you pay for your last coffee?’ Check our instagram for more updates and information.