Kitchen misadventures

When I decided to take a year off work to go abroad for further studies, I was bombarded with questions from many well-meaning friends.

"Is doing a master's worth your time?"

"Does studying help your career?"

"You're so dumb, are you sure you can learn anything?"

Now that I've been away for five months, I can confirm you do learn things.

I've learnt how to cook.

But it has been an oddly long journey. I wanted to learn cooking before I left for London - if you knew you had to spend $15 on a plate of char siew rice, you would too.

The first thing that I had to do though, was to overcome the disbelief from some women that Singaporean men did not pick up culinary skills in the army. I imagine they might have pictured us catching snakes with our bare hands to cook stew in the jungle, when usually we just ate baked beans.

The next challenge was getting someone to teach me.

For some reason, people who know how to cook cannot fathom how other people do not know how to cook.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have likened it to me trying to teach people how to cycle.

"Just hold the handle lor. Then balance lor. Then pedal lor. Very hard meh?" I remember teaching one of my aunts a few years ago, showing little concern for the fact that she was a 50-year-old mother of three.

"Just chop the garlic and vegetable lor. Then put oil lor. Then fry lor. Very hard meh?" one friend explained to me, when I approached her to teach me cooking. She insisted I didn't need any practice, which is a codename for "like hell I'm going to let you destroy my kitchen".

In the end, I persuaded my mother to teach me. It was then that I realised this "duh, isn't it obvious" trait seemed to run through anyone who knows how to cook.

My mum's instructions for everything - from how much salt to add to how long to simmer the meat - was "agak agak", which, in Malay, means to roughly estimate. Of course, I would proceed to "agak agak" my way to some overcooked, soggy vegetables.

I was also terribly uncomfortable in the kitchen. I was the worst at handling a knife, chopping onions so gingerly I might as well have been holding a scorpion.

Surprisingly, the first meal under my mum's tutelage went okay. We fried mushrooms with garlic and bittergourd with egg, and marinated and steamed some pork. It seemed doable, so I decided to go solo the second time.

It was disastrous. The same dishes I had cooked three days earlier had unevenly cut pieces of meat, ridiculously sized chunks of onion and were swimming in soya sauce. Or oil. Or both.

When my mum came home and saw the abomination I called dinner, I think she was more worried about my next 12 months than I was.

"Doomed. I'm doomed," I moaned to a friend over supper before I left, as I tucked wistfully into a plate of mee goreng that I knew I would never be able to cook myself. He had coincidentally learnt cooking when he was studying in London.

"Don't worry, man," he assured me. "Once you get there, you will learn."

"Because I'm going to put in a lot of hard work?"

"No. Because British food is terrible."

And so, hugging my rice cooker, I arrived in London five months ago and was thrown headlong into my culinary training.

It was a rough ride.

My first batch of meatballs came out raw. My first chicken soup was utterly tasteless, despite me stewing it for hours and dumping what seemed like an inordinate amount of herbs into the mix (seriously, why on earth are the flavours still not coming out?).

It didn't help that I was thoroughly embarrassed to cook in front of my flatmates, some of whom looked like they have been manning kitchens since they were 10. One of them, I swear, even decorates his food before serving himself, just because he can.

So, most days, I would shuffle uncomfortably to the shared kitchen, try not to look like I was holding a scorpion in my hand and slowly work at it.

Then somehow, just by being there so often, over the next few weeks, I grew more comfortable. Fire didn't seem that scary. Oil that was sizzling was not going to explode in my face. I started to "agak agak" ingredients. The scorpion turned into a knife.

Occasionally, I would text my friends or my mum for advice. YouTube, I realised, was a pretty good teacher too.

So practice, as they say, makes... well, acceptable. Now I have acceptable cooking standards. Occasionally I even enjoy my meals. More importantly, touch wood, I haven't given myself diarrhoea.

And I finally understand what cooks already know - cooking is indeed intuitive. Like cycling, you just need to work out the kinks at the start and suffer your own bumps and bruises before succeeding.

Funnily enough, now some friends back home want to try my cooking after hearing about my progress.

Well, I guess I can throw something together. Just chop the garlic and vegetable lor. Then put oil and fry lor. Very hard meh?

chengwee@sph.com.sg


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