Sound - Eavesdroppng on adult conversations

Sound - Eavesdroppng on adult conversations

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

My sister and I were included in most of my parents’ restaurant excursions with friends, as is the way of Chinese families. It felt a privilege to be present at these events, which I viewed as the most sophisticated in my parents’ lives. I loved nothing more than dressing up to attend. While I really can’t recall how I conducted myself on these occasions, I imagine I would have been a very interested observer. Recalling the conversations that passed between the adults (looming way above my head height), some interesting things were said.

At large dinner gatherings, my parents and their friends would sit at a round table topped with a classic lazy susan. Appetisers were often already arranged at the table: saucers of boiled or deep-fried peanuts out of the shell, pickled chillies and vegetables. While everyone settled down in their place, snippets about what they had been up to recently created a background hubbub: ‘Yes, just back from the rubber plantation; got back in the jeep yesterday’; ‘Spent the past few days tidying up after the children left to go back to school in Australia.’ I was often engrossed in honing my chopstick skills by picking up peanuts one by one.

As dinner progressed, adults clinked together their glasses of beer (or perhaps their glasses of tea; I couldn’t tell the difference, just that they were varying shades of amber). These were sometimes slammed down onto the table and I would hear the thud of glass on wood, slightly mu#ed by a thin synthetic tablecloth. The pitch of the voices would grow louder: ‘Well, I thought I’d ordered the terrapin soup; I said I wanted the field chicken and then they brought out this platter of frogs’ legs!’ ‘They were for sale in the market the other day; the snake steaks were this wide.’ ‘It’s great for building up resistance: I made a soup of it with the usual medicinal herbs.’

My eyes were probably bulging at the stories I was hearing as the adults started to relax amongst themselves. Dishes would be plonked down at regular intervals. When plates such as the steamed tropical #sh with strips of pork came out, I knew the evening’s excitement was coming to an end and I would soon be facing down my parents and their demands that I get to bed as soon as we arrived home. However, if I had been well behaved, perhaps I could prolong the excursion by being allowed to finish dinner with my favourite sago pudding with fresh coconut cream.

It was just as rewarding to visit other people’s houses. A lot of the older houses in Sabah seemed cavernous and dark; some were quietly isolated on narrow roads, overlooked by tall trees trailing vines; others seemed to rest precariously on eroded hillsides that could only be reached by clunking steps up a series of outdoor staircases made of wood.

Up one such staircase, we would happen upon the house of a childhood friend of my father’s, also our family doctor. He was a softly-spoken man with very gentle manners and his wife was the most elegantly made-up Chinese woman I knew. The usual course of an invitation to dinner at their house was a leisurely (read: interminable from the child’s perspective) pre-dinner conversation over tea, reminiscing about boyhood days when he ran wild around the neighbourhood stirring up the adults’ angst. The course of dinner had a similar unhurried feel to it ... course upon course was served, from braised wild boar to silken scrambled eggs incorporating local prawns. Here, at the table, conversation would turn to the men’s experiences of studying overseas for their professional qualifications. Remembering now these visits to the doctor’s house, I am more fully appreciative of the adult fondness for reminiscing.

One of my favourite houses was the one on the hill overlooking the old harbour. Everything was on a large scale at this place, and I’m sure everyone’s voices echoed. It set the context for the tales of the interior of Sabah that I recall hearing. The resident of this house was the District Commissioner. He would settle himself back in one of those monumental rattan chairs with cushions sporting leaf motifs, and my head would be dizzied by the strange stories he’d relate of indigenous tribes he visited in the interior. Travelling upriver, he’d happened upon the structural magnificence of the longhouses, been greeted with fermented rice brimming with live weevils, seen the remnants of the headhunting culture and wondered whether it was still being practised. This otherworldly introduction would be followed by a more conventional dining experience (suckling pig never tasted so disconcerting).

Recipes in this Chapter

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