One of my fondest memories of being sick as a child–as odd as it sounds–was being able to have my mother’s seafood porridge on demand. (Growing up, the only porridge I thought conceivable was made with rice. It would be years before I learnt about oatmeal.) She would boil white rice in a deep pan until the grains burst (‘this is the Cantonese way–Teochews eat porridge with the whole grain intact’), and added tiny whitebait and morsels of dried scallops that poked up enticingly from the pearly-white mass like jewels from the depths of a treasure chest. I would drizzle light soy sauce all over my bowl and stir in it vigorously with a porcelain spoon until it turned a deep honey-brown. Once I had scoured the bowl clean and licked the salty residue off my spoon until it shone with a dull film, I would rush to the kitchen for a second helping, and often a third. While a fever could turn eight-year-old me off my childhood delicacies of crabsticks and button mushrooms and even the bright golden sugar loaves from BreadTalk, my mum’s porridge was the one dish I could never bear to turn down.
Years have passed. My mother experimented with various iterations of her standard recipe–garnishing the bowl with slivers of cold fishcake, adding mounds of whole scallop into the pot, and even forgoing the seafood altogether and making porridge with the leftovers of the previous night’s duck or chicken. She was a virtuoso in the kitchen, whipping up not just excellent southern Chinese soups and stir-fries but also Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai and even Western main courses with nothing more than a cursory glance at a cookbook (or, in some cases, the TV screen whenever TLC was on). Yet even after savouring the piquant spice of her take on pork-and-kimchi stew, or biting into her fluffy hot baked potatoes and lamb chops liberally garnished with rosemary at Christmas dinner, the simple porridge I had tasted all those years ago remained my favourite home-cooked meal.
One night, I asked her if she could cook it again. The faint aroma of scallops wafting from the kitchen tickled my nostrils and seemed to smile on me from happier, bygone days. I opened the door to the fridge and happened to chance upon a small plastic vial containing numerous thin brown strips–peeled dried scallop. I remembered how she would sit over the living room table amid a heap of dried scallops, painstakingly peeling each of them with a fruit knife until they were reduced to the tiny scraps that could add an almost divine fragrance to a bowl of porridge. And then I remembered how I used to pop open the fridge door and sneakily help myself to the products of her hard work.
I ate that bowl with the same porcelain spoon I had always used–glazed white china with a blue rim, decorated with a stylised blue fish, part of the ‘rooster-and-fish series’ of porcelain utensils we always used to eat rice or noodles with. The red-topped Kikkoman bottle from which I poured the soy sauce hadn’t changed either, though age had left faint scratch marks down its length. As I ran the soy sauce into the pearly-white mass until it turned a deep honey-brown, I decided to ask her how the recipe began.
“I can’t remember when I first learned to cook it. Your Auntie Anne started making it, so I learnt from her. We would add peanuts, the small fish, and minced pork. Minced pork becomes soggy when you put it in and it doesn’t taste very nice, so I took it out later. We didn’t have enough money to buy scallops. Later when we went to those Chinese restaurants, we saw that they would use scallops, so I just use. I used to feed your ché (姐, ‘older sister’ in Hokkien) and ko (哥, ‘older brother’) the peanut porridge when they were young, but because you have a peanut allergy I took them out. With peanuts it’s nicer. You boil, boil boil the peanuts it will expand, expand, expand and all the flavour will come out.
I didn’t cook when I was living with my mother-in-law. Her cooking was so oily. She would make enough soup to take a bath in, and her soup was so tasteless. She would also fry her vegetables in so much oil you can see the oil at the bottom of the plate. But her salted vegetables and pork was very good–it’s called giam chhai cha ti bak (咸菜炸豬肉) in Hokkien. She will add onions and carrots and potato and stir-fry it together and it will be very delicious. She’s Teochew and I’m Hokkien so sometimes we cannot understand each other. Once she asked me look for the diao gui because we were eating chicken rice. I went to look all over for a hanging chicken, and told them I couldn’t find one. Then they all laughed at me, because diao gui in Teochew means ‘cucumber’!
Sometimes I would cook for your da gu (大姑, ‘eldest paternal aunt’) if I had a bit extra porridge, for her to eat at her shop. There’s only Auntie Ah Lan’s fishball noodles next door, and everyday eat already will get boring. I would also sometimes make tom yum. I went for classes when I was working, so I know how to make.
To be a good cook, all you need is the interest to learn how to cook. You never come and watch me in the kitchen, how are you going to learn to make this when you’re older?”