Flavour’s in the fat

A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, I got some stick for declaring that I liked sweet and sour pork some posts ago, when I wrote about being a “Bad Asian“.

It made me feel like writing this post that you’re reading now – a post that is a paean to all the ‘bad’ food that I like. Because I’m appropriately exotic and relatively well-travelled, people want to assume that I’m culinarily sophisticated. I’m afraid not.

While I do draw the line at Chiko Rolls (I’ve only ever eaten half of one in my entire life – I couldn’t finish it), I have a simple palate. Just as I constantly disappoint people who expect someone with a PhD in English to be au fait with all the ‘classics’, my affection for things like sweet and sour pork, and char siu bao, is viewed with some regret.

I wouldn’t be the one leading the way to food adventures, Andrew Zimmern-style.

Something that our family – and many other Chinese Malaysian families – specialise in is lots of ways to eat pork-belly. Before various blood pressure and gall-stone scares, you can guarantee that there would always be a slab of pork-belly in our freezer. Always.

My mum’s go-to dish when we “run out of things” in the freezer is soya sauce pork (because running out of things never means running out of pork belly).

One of our favourite birthday dishes (Mum asks for requests) is soya-bean pork (classic ‘pork and beans’ combo that’s cooked until the beans are soft and the pork unctuous and melting).

One of my most-missed dishes is saltfish and bittergourd pork, which possibly sounds challenging, and is the food that I get most nostalgic about. When you couple many Chinese Malaysian families’ love for all things pork with an older generation Malaysian Chinese habit of believing every health scare published, it means NO SALTFISH AND BITTERGOURD PORK.

Why, I hear you ask, bewildered and – I hope – not just a little outraged?

Well, the anti-fat message has made in-roads, and so has the connection between eating saltfish and nasal-pharyngeal cancer. With two of three key ingredients out of contention, it’s a goner.

I haven’t had this dish in close on three years now.

I think we still have some segments of saltfish in the freezer. I may suggest to my mother that we have it sometime soon and any fat/saltfish-averse types can opt for other dishes. Recalling the dish to write this post has made me salivate.

Food and the cultural practices of eating/consumption are a fantastic area for research, which is why I’m envious of people who are work in this area.

I am deeply envious and also very pleased that two my colleagues published books in 2010 that examined diasporic food cultures:

  1. Lily CHO’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada (U of Toronto Press, 2010) is one I’ve been wanting to read ever since it came out.
  2. Anita MANNUR’s Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2010) – ditto what I said about Lily’s book.

Along with Annette Shun Wah’s Banquet (out of print), the field of diasporic food cultures and their social and cultural resonances is excitingly covered.

As well as eating a plate of fresh steamed rice and saltfish+bittergourd pork, I’m now hankering to do some new research. The only thing better than contemplating a culture and food project is contemplating a culture, food, and science fiction project…

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3 thoughts on “Flavour’s in the fat

  1. Mabel Kwong 14/12/2012 / 12:16 pm

    I find it very interesting that pork is the most sought-after and the ‘go-to’ dish in not just Chinese-Malaysian families but for most Chinese families. As a Chinese person, I am not a fan of pork dishes at all. The only pork I eat occasionally is ham. And am not a fan of bittergourd too. This is despite eating all these dishes growing up here in Oz and East Asia. They just never grew on me I suppose? So perhaps I am more of a ‘bad-Asian’ than you.

    A culture, food and science fiction combined project? Bring it! 😀

    • Tseen Khoo 14/12/2012 / 4:02 pm

      Hah. I have no doubt that there’s quite a broad spectrum of ‘bad Asians’ out there! I’m not a fan of the bittergourd per se – as in, I wouldn’t eat it by itself. Something magical happens to it when it’s simmered with the pork belly and saltfish, though…

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