When I first left home 9 years ago, I couldn’t make an omelette. I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. And I definitely couldn’t read maps.
I still can’t read maps. Ask anyone who’s spent more than a couple of hours with me and they’ll tell you all about it.
But these days, I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve in the kitchen. And it is in the hope that one of those tricks will one day work its magic on you, that I welcome you to the first of many posts on Dipa’s Kitchen.
By some stroke of luck, I wound up in Kokubunji, a suburb in Western Tokyo for a trial run of a cooking class that I’ll be teaching two weeks from now. Forget the overrated Shibuya and Shinjuku. It’s the suburbs of Tokyo that are full of heart and character.
My Japanese is far from perfect, but thankfully it’s good enough to make friends, ask for directions and do my own taxes.
Hey, I know what’s important.
That’s how I got to know Miyao San, who I’ve been back on forth with as we translated the recipes from English to Japanese.
No matter what anyone says, cooking will always be an art – not a science. Although I wrote the recipes with as much precision as I possibly could, it’s hard to replicate the exact same dish unless you use the exact same ingredients from the exact same brands in the exact same kitchen in the exact same blah blah blah.
Mother nature isn’t always reliable with her produce. Anyone who aims to be half decent in the kitchen must be adaptable and be prepared to…mess up. Experiments in the kitchen are best done on yourself – not on your loved ones or unsuspecting guests.
For my cooking class, I decided on three dishes: ikan billis nasi goreng, tahu goreng and Milo Dinosaur.
Ikan billis nasi goreng is an acquired taste for most westerners, but I figured that the Japanese wouldn’t mind given their love for the Shirasu Don.
And here’s a picture of the infamous Shirasu Don.
Those are little fishes, not noodles. Having grown up in an island country myself, I like it, but it definitely isn’t for everybody.
For those of us who love cooking, we cook to please others, never ourselves. We find joy in creating something that others can relish. For those of us who love eating, we do it to delight our palate…and the rest of the body usually follows shortly after.
I’ve been a foodie for as long as I can remember, but cooking has taught me to appreciate eating that much more. I love cooking. I really really do. But I also love it when someone cooks for me.
What can I say – as much as I like to please, I also like to be pleased.
But whether I’m the one doing the pleasing or not – a meal begins as it always does, with a bunch of raw ingredients.
Cooking is not a glamorous job. Food splattering. Inhaling the fumes of something in its primal state. Handling ingredients that leave its stench on your hands for days. (Salmon. Eek!) Perspiring like crazy. Getting burn marks on your forearms. Cutting your finger instead of the cabbage. And don’t get me started on how quickly the general condition of your hands is going to deteriorate.
It is on that note that I must sadly admit that I don’t enjoy my own cooking. After all that hard work, my bottomless appetite has usually left the building and the last thing I want to do is sit down and eat all those ingredients that were a bloody and messy blur a couple of hours ago.
But as we all know all too well – food isn’t just about pleasure. It’s also about nutrition and sustenance. We eat cause we have to. Because we need to. We even eat things that taste disgusting because it’s good for us.
In a shared household, I somehow always wind up with the task of running the kitchen. In the past nine years since leaving home, I’ve only had one err…’housemate’ that can cook.
The rest of them were hopeless in the kitchen.
They usually offered to do the washing up: a 20 minute job that just about anyone can do. Big whoop. Wait till I get a dishwasher and render them redundant.
ANYWAYS, it took us just over 2 hours, but we did it. A Singaporean meal, for 7 people.
Everyone was super kind and helpful. It’s good fun cooking with others. I rarely get the chance to do it.
First up, we had tahu goreng: a tofu salad with bean spouts and cucumbers served with a sweet, spicy and tangy peanut sauce. A popular dish throughout Southeast Asia, its relatively easy to make in Japan. I couldn’t find palm sugar, so I replaced it with black sugar from Okinawa.
It’s not the same, but… we do what we can. The sauce really should have been thicker.
Next up, we had the main dish: ikan billis nasi goreng. A childhood favourite of mine, each bite always brings back so many memories. It’s ordinarily made with leftover Thai or Jasmine rice, but in Japan I use genmai 玄米. Regular Japanese white rice is way too sticky for this recipe.
I garnished it with some coriander (optional) and fresh lemon (a must!).
The Milo Dinosaur, a Singaporean favourite, gave us all that much needed sweet finish. Me being me – by the time dessert came around, I had forgotten to take a picture.
I’ll do better next time.
Unlike Australia, where authentic Singaporean (and Malaysian) restaurants are abundant, there aren’t that many Singaporean restaurants in Japan. Even the ones that I know of are very much catered to the Japanese palate and not quite suited to mine.
Even when I cook at home, I have to substitute a lot of ingredients – either because it isn’t available or just costs too much. The things we have to do to get that sweet little taste of home when we’re overseas.
After we finished our meal, we uttered a gochisosamadeshita and I finally got to take off my batik apron and let down my hair.
No one likes hair in their food. Even if it’s their own.
That’s me with Masuda San: the organiser of the event.
Life in the Kanto area in Japan is just way too good. Once again, I ended up running for the last train home.
Going to bed at 1am when you have to wake up at 5am the next day is not a good idea. I hurt so bad on Monday morning.
As much as I love cooking, no more err…’housemates’ who can’t cook.
Life’s too short to please and not be pleased.
Having said that, I’ll settle for a weekly Friday night dinner at a restaurant of my choice. No questions asked. No expenses spared.
But for God’s sake, learn to make an omelette.