Food mysteries, I have found, are best unraveled in layers. Friends who know of my aversion to dim sum often ask: How is it that a girl of Chinese stock would have no taste for Chinese food? Why, they wonder, do my culinary preferences lean farther south, to Indonesia? My answer to both questions is simple: Ah Eng.
Ah Eng, you see, was our family cook. At 30, this Chinese-Malaysian generalissimo was the most senior person my family employed at our home in Singapore, so the dubious honor of being chef fell to her. Why? Tradition, said my grandmother. What tradition? Oh, will you be quiet! Though she needed a helping hand or two, the diminutive Ah Eng refused to surrender even a spatula. Those Indonesian girls can't be trusted in the kitchen, she said, referring to our other domestic workers. Those Indonesian girls have never cooked before. Soggy rice, she warned. Food poisoning, she threatened. Gas explosion, she hissed.
And so we were subjected to Ah Eng's greatest hits, night after night: pork belly stewed with dark soy sauce in a Crock-Pot (idiotproof) and "lazy chicken" (slather whole chicken with Campbell's condensed French onion soup, pop in oven, and voilà). We all knew her food was rotten, but we cleaned our plates anyway. Colonial British reticence and that age-old Confucian unwillingness to rock the boat had done irreparable damage to our collective self-confidence.
So, if I were to be honest about my distaste for Chinese food, I'd have to conclude it was due as much to what Ah Eng couldn't do (cook) as to what my family didn't do (intervene). The explanation for my love of Indonesian food would, however, be incomplete if, like Ah Eng, we were blithely to overlook those Indonesian girls.
Tati and Risti were high-spirited women who had been hired to watch my baby cousins. They made quite a team: Tati lank and klutzy, Risti buxom and sturdy, the two always chattering, always laughing. Hanging around them, I picked up gossip and a sense of the world's surprising possibilities (Risti would eventually run off with Kusman, the Indian security guard at our condo complex).
It was pure chance that Ah Eng was called away on an emergency the day before my tenth birthday party. A void had opened up, but because whoever filled it would have to contend with a birthday party of ten hungry girls, none of my relatives volunteered to help. I was getting the chocolate birthday cake from Lana Cakes in the ritzy Bukit Timah area. But my friends would scoff if that was all we served. This was Singapore. One couldn't have a proper party without chicken wings.
My grandmother rounded up Risti and Tati. "Can you cook?" she asked. Risti and Tati exchanged sheepish looks. Tati shrugged and pointed at Risti. Risti confessed: "Sedikit [A little]." Emboldened by Ah Eng's absence, Grandmother ventured a follow-up. Could they be trusted not to start a fire? The Indonesian girls laughed.
The next morning, I woke to sounds of chopping and blender-buzzing from the kitchen, punctuated by nervous titters. "Hati-hati!" Risti cautioned Tati. "It'll stain everything!"
Uh-oh, I thought, and went downstairs for a peek.
Risti and Tati were on their haunches, the sleeves of their batik housecoats rolled up and tucked atop the shoulders. Their hands were coated in neon yellow goop, and bright flecks of the same tinted their hair. They were massaging about a hundred raw chicken wings inside plastic buckets of what looked like pulpy nuclear waste. Still, I'd never smelled anything so pungently good: turmeric, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallot, and a tart hint of tamarind. I tiptoed away, confused, intrigued.
Later that day, as my party guests arrived, a new aroma had taken flight. It was the exotic mélange of what I had smelled before plus the sweet, fatty fullness of chicken skin romancing sizzling peanut oil. The wings were being deep-fried, suffusing my world with a distinctly unfamiliar aura: a happy smell.
Tati carried the wings out on two heaving platters, nearly tripping twice—"Careful! Very hot, ah!"—and put them on the table. They sat before us, little V's of golden brown perfection, crisp-skinned and fragrant, the luminosity of the turmeric hanging back but still teasingly there.
I tore into my first piece of chicken, pulling the flesh from the bone in perfect white segments, releasing puffs of steam and flickers of bright yellow oil. I unsheathed the skin, saving it for last, and bit into the tender flesh between the wing's bony tines.
I expected it to taste like the fried wings I'd known: the batter-metastasized monsters of Singapore food courts, the lukewarm, taupe-colored phalanges at every birthday party. But this was no cousin, not even a flamboyant sister-in-law. Risti and Tati's Indonesian chicken was exuberance, camaraderie, boldness, color, and a vigorous crunch.
As I devoured ten wings straight, I thought about the simple pleasures my family had denied itself. Even at ten, I knew the solution was obvious: Shouldn't Risti and Tati be cooking all our meals?
But it wasn't to be. Ah Eng came home that night to a well-scrubbed kitchen (we told her we had ordered McDonald's), and Risti and Tati bowed their heads and returned to their prescribed child-care roles. While Ah Eng's food was terrible, we didn't have the heart to tell her that she had been outdone by those Indonesian girls.