“I smell rice!” was the first thing Audrey said as she stepped into our home after nursery today. Indeed, I had just put some fragrant jasmine rice into the microwave before I went to pick her up, using our Joseph Joseph stackable set.
It amazes me how quickly she recognises these food scents, but all the more reinforces how much we learn how to eat, as Bee Wilson wrote in her book, First Bite, with the smells of food being a significant part of the experience. Indeed, all my earliest memories of ‘home’ are somehow associated with various scents of preparing food. I still yearn greatly for the smoky smell of burnt flint, that draws me back to my childhood spent in Sai Kung, the rural part of Hong Kong where my grandmother still resides.
There, in the late 1980s, many villagers would still use wood as a source of fuel. It is also tangled with the sandalwood incense used for ancestral worship. I also remember vaporised oil which came from cooking all kinds of vegetables and meat in high heat, occasionally with rice wine, in my grandmother’s kitchen, where food was also prepared by eldest aunties who were married into family. (Being given the responsibility to cook for the family is one of great honour, and descends with age according to the brother they were married to: number 1, 2, 4, 5… the daughters of the family, by contrast, never had to cook.)
Stepping out of the kitchen, I would find other scents – cigarette smokes from my grandmother herself and my uncles (but my grandfather never did). Those were the scents on Sundays, where my dad’s side of the extended family convened. Between all these smells, the memories of playtime with my cousins. There would be 2-3 tables of us eating our Sunday dinners, and we would rush to finish so we could maximise every single minute of play.
By contrast, my memories of smells growing up in the city were more fragmented and to an extent fabricated. These are still food-related, mostly of dining establishments. Fresh-pressed linen of different kinds of restaurants, the artificial citrus scents of the hand towels… this was amidst many things, a common backdrop where my mother’s side of the family typically met for Sunday lunches. Good manners and behaviours were much more reinforced, and play time (with the fewer like-aged cousins) was less enjoyable in restaurants and the hallways of shopping malls.
And these are usually more complicated because my maternal grandfather had two wives – Sunday lunches would be a meet up of both sides of the family. My step grandmother had already long passed away, but my own grandmother would avoid going to these Sunday lunches in case conflict occurs between her and some of the step-aunties. The only good thing which came out of it was the pocket money my grandfather gave to all his grandchildren – HK$250 each week – a very generous gesture. I remembered waiting impatiently for the meals to finish, before taking the ride to Sai Kung, to enjoy time with my ‘rural’ relatives.
Fast forward nearly thirty years and living in a different country, I have only now realised the importance of food scents triggering memories of childhood through observing and taking part in shaping Audrey’s food memories of her own. Here’s a recipe that I jumbled up to adapt the ‘mushroom and mince pork patty’ which my grandmother used to make, a childhood favourite to go with rice. I replaced mushrooms with dried seaweed flakes, kombu, which is a handy cupboard item that is rich in fibre and iodine (a trace element important for thyroid function), and adds a savoury flavour (and umami) without the need for extra salt.
Beans, pork and seaweed
250g pork mince
1tbsp soy sauce
1tbsp sesame oil
1tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 red onion, diced
300g green beans, diced
30g seaweed, kombu, reconstituted and finely chopped
Marinate pork in soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. Leave for 30 minutes. Heat oil and sweat onion. Add diced beans, pork and seaweed. Stir to cook.
Four adult accompanying portions. Great with rice or toppings for noodles.
Per 100g: Energy 150kcal 623kJ | Fat 8.9g of which saturates 2.2g | Carbohydrate 3.5g of which sugars 2.7g | Fibre 5.6g | Protein 11.1g | Salt 0.7g
Per portion (130g): Energy 193kcal 804kJ | Fat 11.5g of which saturates 2.9g | Carbohydrate 4.5g of which sugars 3.5g | Fibre 7.3g | Protein 14.4g | Salt 0.9g