Taste - An outrage of tastes

Taste - An outrage of tastes

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

As an adult I don’t think twice about splicing chillies into any dish where there’s a place for them. Observers comment that this is because of my Malaysian background, however, I do also remember a time when the sensation of chilli heat on my tongue was something quite unbearable.

I’m sure it was one of my mother’s curries (probably her most mild chicken one, tempered with fresh coconut milk) that I remember. My mother, over the years, has developed the Malaysian-style chicken curry to a version that suits her sense of taste and the practicalities of her kitchen. Pungent with the smell of the ground spices that make up the paste, the knots of lemongrass and dark green curry leaves and the pools of coconut oil that have separated from the thick yellowish sauce, it now characterises ‘balanced flavour’ for me. I was probably quite curious about the taste of the visually arresting sight on the table, and was in likelihood warned off by my parents or other adults, aware that I was too young to endure the heat of chilli and pepper.

Of course it turned out to be an unpleasant experience. It was a ‘nothing’ sensation on my tongue, because something like numbing pain overpowered the other tastes of sweet and salty. It left me wondering why this was something people would choose to eat, and appear to enjoy eating. But I wasn’t turned off by this initial encounter. Perhaps because I could see so many people around me enjoying chilli on a daily basis, I felt I had to be initiated into the group. So the introductory journey continued: discovering chillies in sauces (pickled green chillies or red chillies in dipping sauces) and gradually building up a forbearance and then an appreciation for their particular flavour and varying levels of heat.

Bitterness took me a lot longer to understand. ‘Crestfallen’ is the word that would have accurately described the look on my face, as well as the physical sensation I felt, when bitter melon featured at meal times. It might have been fragrantly fried with black beans and pork, stuffed with the tastiest of prawns, or accompanying the sweetest of fish, but the medicinal bitterness infected and dominated everything else. There was even a bitter quality to its smell which caught in my throat. How could anyone visibly smile when they tasted the dish? I don’t recall my first encounter with bitter melon, but I do recall the many occasions I’ve tried to expel its bitter taste from my tongue, and the length of time it lingers (no one could criticise bitter melon for its lack of finish on the palate, I’m sure).

It certainly wasn’t that I disliked all bitter things. A rich brew of pork soup with bitter and sweet dried Chinese herbs was, and will always remain, a favourite flavour. Tasting the meat from the pork bones dipped in dark soy sauce was a treat as a child. No other meat tasted more intense and sweet, for the very reason that it had been cooked for hours in essentially bitter herbs.

I’m not sure that I’ve reconciled myself to sitting down and enjoying a large dish of bitter melon; the memory of my distaste for it remains vivid. If I have any remaining apprehension, it would be against a lingering bitterness which has no rewarding taste — whether sweet, salty, sour or maybe hot — to balance it. Bitter tastes, then, have formed part of the spectrum of flavours with which I play around to create reactions from those tasting the dishes.

Recipes in this Chapter

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