Taste - Chickens and pigs

Taste - Chickens and pigs

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

At home we ate in a manner typical of most Chinese families: very simply, with lots of shared vegetable dishes, fewer meat dishes, rice and sometimes a soup. Given that the emphasis was on variety to balance out what defined a meal, the meat element represented just one part of the array. In this way, the quality of the meat and fish was just as important as how deliciously they were rendered by the cooking process.

From a child’s point of view, our meals were structured around a reward and punishment system. Certain dishes that I didn’t like included spinach poached to an incredible softness in dried shrimp stock (this had a weird tannic taste that stung my tongue) and strong-tasting batons of spring onion and thin slices of ginger stir-fried with strips of beef, which was too rich for my childlike sense of taste.

Dishes I did enjoy included soy sauce chicken: intensely salty and highly flavoured with spring onion and garlic, but balanced by the sweetness of meat and sauce. Also, salted chicken steamed with ginger and shallot; this was cut with the bones in, red at their centres, chewy but with an appealing meatiness, and, again, with the sweetness of light soy, fried onion, ginger and scallion oil dressing and with mustard mixed from powder. (I think it’s also important to mention how much of a thrill and sometimes annoyance were the shards of bone found in the dish.) And dried lily buds steamed with chopped pieces of chicken on the bone: oniony and garlicky, the taste spiced up by ginger. Also, chicken braised with chestnuts (which we bought dried) for sweetness and savouriness.

I recall the sense of pride expressed by family members, male and female, when they found what they asserted was the best purveyor of pork or chicken in the markets. I always felt like a voyeur during these adult exchanges, but they might explain my early fascination with the facts and fictions associated with food: the logistics of choosing the right live chickens; how to determine the age of a bird by looking at the state of the claws; feel out the thickness of breast meat for tenderness; the state of the feathers; the history of the farm or grower; the correct colour of pork meat; the smell and sex of the pig; the ideal age of a pig ... I also vividly recall accounts from cousins, and even my younger sister, of the killing of live chickens in our home after their purchase from the market; the disproportionate spray of blood and the poor chicken running around the yard headless. I’ve heard them all before. (I can still only tolerate watching horror or violent films with one eye closed or my ears covered so that at least one of the senses is blocked out to filter what might be too much to bear.)

When my family arrived in Australia, we maintained our eating traditions, but were without our extended family with whom to share meals. What was more startling for us innocents abroad was how different the produce was from the ingredients we were used to sourcing at the wet markets and small market gardens.

My mother kept mentioning that the texture of the chickens she bought in Australia was much softer. She made it one of her missions to find the scrawny, chewy, yellow-skinned little chickens that she missed, but to no avail. In recent years, one of my highly

individualistic pig-farming friends has offered the chickens from the brood that runs wild around his property. And there are also now chickens bred for Chinese tastes available through specialist providores. But these options have never been wholly satisfactory to her and, by extension, to me. I suspect we have a static concept based on imperfect recall. Times do change through economic and social necessity and I believe the chickens we would find in our old home town now are probably better fed and less likely to have run around in yards developing muscle. Moreover, since we live in a vacuum outside the progressive change happening in Malaysia, our tastes are probably no longer aligned; what for us is an ‘ideal’ might no longer be found, or indeed considered ‘ideal’ any more.

Recipes in this Chapter

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