Touch - Is this a cuisine of entrails & intestines ... ?

Touch - Is this a cuisine of entrails & intestines ... ?

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

The Chinese sand pots at home held such a lot of promise. Those pots with their coarsely textured sloping sides that graduated from a narrow base and were covered tightly with a (probably mismatched) lid from the family’s motley collection of kitchenware ... There was no indication of what they might hold. The sides were sometimes stained with the overflow of a sauce that had been cooked within, lending mystique and the threat of volcanic heat. However, for all the show of promise as it sat on the stove or at the table, it was always ill-advised to touch one of these pots, for the promise it did keep was that it radiated as well as retained heat.

I had an obsession with one particular recipe. This was a dish that, in my childhood experience, could be presented on a large platter, but was more often served in one of my mother’s sand pots. It has a place in Chinese cuisine as signifying good luck, but was the cause of slight alarm on my part whenever the lid was lifted. The dish was a slithery braise of dried oyster and black moss, the rich darkness, the intense smell and the highly savoury taste of which attracted the admiration of all the adults. The dismay I felt was caused by imagining the feel of the dish: smooth, slippery pieces of unidentiable animal parts (given the intense shellfish-iness of the smell, I concluded this to be some sort of sea-based animal) and fine tresses of black moss fungus snagged through the darkly thick mixture. There was always something threatening in its imagined texture; the eating, too, seemed to come with a veiled threat and I couldn’t guess whether I might love or hate what was about to be offered. (Unidentified animal parts being something that yielded a response of visceral disgust and fear at that time.)

When I dared taste this dish, the oysters had a combination of chewiness and softness which didn’t do anything to relieve my apprehension about dismembered body parts. And the black moss seemed to be simply another aspect supporting my conclusions about its gruesome composition. But, for all the disgust I felt, the taste was intensely fulfilling and tantalising. It felt as if I were participating in something dangerous and mysterious.

The texture of offal is fascinating, but to have any appreciation of its variety and breadth and versatility as a child I had to navigate my way out of my prejudices and come to a place where I could tolerate understanding where different organs came from. I had to relieve myself of fear in the association of bloodied parts and innards with something to eat.

So, while I later saw that there was a similar thick darkness in the glaze for duck and chicken livers, the threat was gone once I knew exactly what it was all about. I still saw a mass of oddly shaped items on a plate, but my imagination wasn’t working itself to the extreme in an attempt to draw the most horrific conclusions it could. They appeared more like candied pieces arranged for delicate tasting.

Another ingredient that never repulsed me, although it potentially could have done, was the slippery swallow’s nest. In the first place, this was ideologically unsound for us to have indulged in, for the nests were stolen from swallows who’d built them precariously high in Malaysia’s rock caverns. What’s more, the nests are actually the hardened saliva of swallows, making me wonder if anyone has tried to make something edible from spiders’ webs or the cocoons of moths and caterpillars?

I saw the painstaking way my mother prepared these for soup. The nest had to be soaked in water to soften it. When draining, she had to be careful not to let any filaments escape down the sink (these were expensive titbits). Once softened, the nest would expand greatly in size. My mother would then take tweezers and set to the task of picking out the twigs, splinters, feathers and unidentifiable fragments from the mass of filaments. I have to confess, I was entranced by the transformation process I saw in the cooking of these nests. She placed the nest with water and rock sugar in a ceramic jar with a lid, which was then placed inside a pot partially filled with water. The hot water bubbling around the jar made a comforting noise. In the end, the bird’s nest became a pure and pale concoction that we happily snacked on.

Texture seems to have been my initial problem with certain dishes and was something I overcame with time as a child. On the other hand, sometimes smell overrode everything else. When we were sick, my sister and I were sometimes given a restorative soup of pig’s liver and sweet leaf or matrimony vine. The sharp, iron smell of the slices of poached liver, cooked until floury and chewy, confounded me. And, in the instance of a delicacy — pig’s kidneys stir-fried with slices of ginger, preserved mustard greens and spring onions — no amount of complementary and contrasting aromats could reduce the high stink of the kidney. Included in this collection of bits and pieces — of tripe, glands, jellyfish, tendon, birds’ tongues, animal and bird hearts — eyeballs may be added! It’s all an eccentric and subjective view; there’s no logical or rational reason why I did and do find certain things threatening or inedible. I do still harbour a fear of offal and other slimy and smelly organs. However, I set challenges for myself, to devise ways of cooking animal parts of which I’m not absolutely fond. In this way I can trick myself, whether it’s by playing with texture or taste or smell.

Recipes in this Chapter

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