I was born of third generation Chinese parents, lived in Indonesia for my first 19 years of life and am now residing in Houston, Texas. I sometimes feel lost as to who I am. I am Chinese, yet, I don’t know everything I should know about being a Chinese. As to my Indonesian heritage, there is yet so much more I need to learn about Indonesian. And now, as an American, I have still yet a lot to learn. In my own confusion, I have finally found my own inner peace when I am in the kitchen…
I grew up in a kitchen that had a life of its own. My mom’s cook and the cook’s assistant provided everything, from breakfast, lunch to dinner, with many snacks thrown in. I remember I liked hanging out in the kitchen during a school holiday, watching as the cook prepared the food. On several occasions, I would ask if I could help out and they would only let me help them peel some garlic, snap some green beans, or shred some coconut or juice the shredded coconut. But that was the extent of my helping in the kitchen. I guess I was too young to be trusted with bigger tasks, or perhaps, I was bothersome to them.
My mom would cook only during the holidays or special occasions, such as New Year, or someone’s birthday. One of my earliest memories about my mom’s involvement in the kitchen was watching her make and decorate birthday cakes. She taught my sisters how to beat eggs and sugar using a hand beater, which was basically a wooden stick with spiraled hardy wire attached to the end. I was too young to be trusted with helping out in making and decorating birthday cakes, so I just stood there and watched them. I remember my sisters had to continue taking turns beating the eggs and sugar with a hand beater until the batter was ready to be baked, because their arms got tired. I also remember how my mom skillfully piped the icing on the cakes and made pretty flowers and leaves. And when she finished decorating the birthday cakes, she let us lick the icing off the pot and pans. I just love remembering that moment; it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside me. It makes me want to go back as a child, watching my mom make her pretty birthday cakes. In case you wonder, the picture on the header of this blog was my mom decorating birthday cakes. I treasure this picture very much and decided that I would use it for my food blog.
As I grew up, my involvement in the kitchen expanded a little bit. The cook would let me fry tofu, fry eggs, shape the potato croquette and grind the spices using a mortar and pestle. Then, in the last year of my elementary school, the teacher taught the class how to cook. I remember I practiced at home and made some simple Indonesian snacks. My favorite was making some kind of steamed cake that has a crater on the top. Alas, I don’t remember the recipe. I don’t even remember the name! I only remember it involved some caramelized sugar, and two to three eggs. That’s it! Horrible isn’t it? How could I forgot the recipe? Oh well…
So that was to the extent my experience in the kitchen then. I knew how to fry, how to boil water… ( ha ha…), and make a few Indonesian snacks… that was about it! Oh, I knew how to make my own ramen noodles! Just boil some water in a pot, dump the ramen and the spices, and eat! :)
Then I went to college, where my brother and cousin already attended. Eating out was expensive, so I jumped into the kitchen to feed my family with the few basic skills I had. I did not even know how to cook rice in a rice cooker; my brother had to teach me that. Everyone (my brother, my cousin, and my future sister-in-law) were my guinea pigs. But I knew how to make Sambal Terasi (Indonesian hot sauce using shrimp paste), so everyone was excited about that. After all, I came to the United States prepared with my mortar and pestle! So our first meal was Lalapan (salad) with Sambal Terasi, and perhaps some fried tofu and rice.
My cooking back then was just plain necessity. A little stir fry here and there… I used a lot of the Indonesian ready-made spices where you just dump everything into a pot. I did not venture out much due to the availability of spices back then. The few times that I did make something from scratch was Lemper (shredded chicken wrapped in glutinous rice) and Empal (fried beef). But that was about it. My cousin and I bought a $10 hand-held mixer from Wal-Mart, but I don’t think we ever used the mixer.
I started experimenting with Chinese cooking while looking for employment after college. I found out that my cooking did not taste like what the restaurant makes. But, with no money, surely you can’t go out eat everyday. So I continued to make tasteless Chinese food day after day. Occasionally I would cook the Indonesian food using the ready-made spices. I also remember a lot of Hamburger Helper, which was introduced by my then boyfriend, who would later become my husband. I remember also during these years, I collected a lot of recipes which consisted of cookies and baked goodies. But I did not bake because I did not have all of the stuff that I needed. That was my repertoire of cooking back then. Necessity and no fun involved. I cooked because I had to.
Then a few years back, after I had been working for several years, I had a few spare coins in my pocket to buy some baking ingredients. I decided to try to make cookies from one of the newspaper clippings I had. Then a cream cheese brownie pie, and I think that was the turning point that revived my interests in baking. The $10 mixer from Wal-Mart got used over and over again, until the machine burned out.
From then on, I experimented with recipes and my poor colleagues at the office became my guinea pigs. But that was mostly on baked goods. It was not until recently that I learned I actually like cooking as well. But I still prefer baking rather than cooking. Baking is an exact science, and cooking is not so much. Cooking is a guessing game for the taste buds.
It is my dream that perhaps one day I can make all kinds of baked goods, decorate cakes with icing and play with fondants. I still keep the cake decorating book that I bought in 1992 when I first came to the U.S. I have not had the guts to try that yet… perhaps one day in the future. From now on, I will just keep putting my feet ahead, one at a time.