They say that life is a cycle of ups and downs.
I was adopted as a baby by the staff nurse who delivered me from a family of 10. I don’t remember any of her cooking as she died of cancer when I was 3 years old. But I do remember that we had a part-time maid who came in to look after us when mum was sick and bed ridden. Legend has it that she learned all her awesome cooking skills from mum.
To this day, I remember papa’s (that was the maids name) awesome sweet soy sauce chicken rice slow cooked in a rice cooker. Papa left after my adopted father died when I was 10 years old. That was a painful memory. I remember being moved from one relative to another, more of a burden than a blessing to my relatives. I used to cry and hang on to papa whenever she made time to visit.
For a long time sweet soy sauce chicken rice was just a memory of better times. Some of my aunties that I lived with use to make sweet soy sauce chicken with lots of potatoes and onions, I guess it was a popular dish as it was in many households what we call comfort food. But they never tasted the same, never as good as papa’s dishes.
Fast forward 30 years down the road, a journey that would make a bestseller of a novel if I may blow my own horn. Growing up, graduating from an orphanage, yes I finally settled into an orphanage after having lived through some difficult years with some relatives.
I left the orphanage when I started working, I moved from Penang to Singapore and then finally to settle in Kuala Lumpur. I was fortunate to be introduced to someone whose home I ended up squatting in, one who I would grow to love and call my foster mother late on in life.
It turns out she is a great cook among many other things, teacher, activist, and the list goes on and her favourite dish is now mine, the 5 Spice Beef which I had entered as a recipe for #butterkicap:
#butterkicap 5 SPICE BEEF (The origins of this recipe are Hokkien, very indulgent dish. Do not sacrifice on oil or sugar, it's critical to the dish) 1kg Beef filet (daging lembu batang pinang) cut into slices approximately 4cm in length and 0.5cm thick 2 large Yellow onions cut into rings Marinade: 1 packet Chinese 5 spice powder Coarse ground black pepper 2 teaspoons Kicap lemak manis 4.5 tablespoons Kicap lemak masin 2.5 tablespoons 2 tablespoons white sugar Seasoning: 1/3 teaspoon salt Coarse ground black pepper 1/3 teaspoon Marinade first with the 5spice powder, followed by the black pepper. Mix well. Then add both soy sauces that have been mixed together. Then add sugar. Leave it to soak in flavours for 45min, ideally 90min. Heat up 250ml oil in a medium sized wok. When oil is hot, put in the beef. In the wok, the amount of oil should almost cover the beef. Stir evenly. Keep the heat medium high. Cover the wok and every 3min, open and stir again, cover. Do this for 3 cycles. Add salt and the 1/3 teaspoon of black pepper. Keep stirring for at least 10min more, until you see fat rendered from the meat and the water has evaporated. At this point add in the onion rings and stir constantly until the onions are cooked (almost translucent) but not too soft. The beef is almost blackened from caramelizing of sugar and soy. Ready to serve, eat with hot white rice, pour one or two spoons of the oil from this dish and mix it into the rice as a substitute to butterkicap. Note: If u double the meat recipe its only 1.5x oil, everything else doubles.
I realised there is a common thread to food that I like in that they all have a sweet soy sauce base, whether chicken, beef or fish, but they don’t all taste the same. Because what papa and my foster mother had in common that none of my other relatives had was that when they cooked for me, it was a MANIFESTATION OF LOVE.
A bond between a mother and son/daughter/child can never be replicated by just anyone, especially when it comes to food; it has to be a manifestation of love. And that is how I rate Comfort Food.