Taste - What are colours meant to taste like?

Taste - What are colours meant to taste like?

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

At this late stage in the book I have to confess to a failure of memory. The central inspiration for this memory is an instance of imagination taking over reality, but it remains one of my most vivid, nevertheless. We were attending a wedding in the kampong area where some Malay friends lived. We arrived in our car late in the day and parked it by the roadside. Our parents guided us down stone steps that led to a house set on stilts.

I recall how shy my sister and I were about being in that environment, for we knew no one yet there were so many laughing happy faces milling around. We were guided to the verandah and settled on rattan chairs with some kindly faced older women. On a low table there were a number of large jars containing snacks. I recall my mother taking the lead in tasting everything. The thing that astounded me was a cookie that looked like a lump of coal. My mother pointed it out and said, ‘Try it: it’s delicious’. I was thrown into a whirlwind of hesitancy yet wanting to satisfy my curiosity — this black thing surely was not edible? But my mother had already tasted it and pronounced it delicious. I overcame my negative feelings about the coal-black cookie and took a tentative bite. It was the crunchiest, hardest, lightest, sweetest, most fragrant, complex-flavoured coconut cookie I have ever tasted.

And my problem is, how much of this is fabrication created in my mind over the years, and how much actual reality? Neither my sister nor my mother has any recollection of the cookie, and I haven’t found reference to it in any literature. So it has come to occupy a mythical place in my world and pushes me to explore what it might represent.

The incident reinforces a question that keeps appearing in my head: what are colours meant to taste like? One of my favourite sweet snacks, kuih cha guo, is a patty made of glutinous rice flour dough, wrapped around crunchy crushed peanut and steamed over rounds of banana leaves. My grandmother was an expert at making these; she didn’t have the wooden moulds that you could press the dough into, so hers were simply flattish patties, dull white but translucent, showing a hint of the golden peanut filling. On occasion she coloured them red, but they didn’t really taste any different. I had an inkling that this was symbolic of something but it was only later confirmed that these snacks were eaten to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

What was even more perplexing, once I had absorbed the tenuous state of certainty that cha guo could be white or red and still contain my favourite sweet peanut filling, was that, when we went to visit other households or when my mother brought them back from the market, the familiar shape and format of the cha guo could encase a multitude of fillings: red bean paste, green bean paste, savoury or sweet dried shrimp, salty peanut, salted turnip and pork. The colour meant nothing — it could be white, red or even a green version — but any one of them could contain the filling that I most looked forward to. How was a child to process that?

The seven-layered kuihs presented me with a similar problem. Home cooks prided themselves on being able to achieve seven or more perfectly thin and even layers by pouring a flour-thickened coconut cream mixture onto a tray and steaming it to set, pouring layer after thin layer until the required number was achieved. However, the way to differentiate the thin stripes was to colour the mixture. So, a kuih could have alternating layers of white and green, or white and pink, or even white, green and pink. I liked to peel off each layer individually to taste it. And I was continually disappointed to realise that the different colours bore no correlation to any difference in taste. You see how this playing around with colouring confused me?

I didn’t have the same difficulty in comprehending taste and colour when dfferent foods were of similar colours. Take, for example, orange-coloured foods. The flesh of the pumpkin, when cooked, usually becomes a deeper translucent orange: sweet, pasty, and easily crushed up into mush. Ripe papaya flesh is also orange: its sweetness tempered by a musty smell and a more resilient texture than cooked pumpkin. I understood that I could eat papaya raw, but not pumpkin; it was simply the way these things were. Was it, then, adults playing tricks of manipulation that I found so hard to accept and comprehend?

I also didn’t have a problem accepting that the same object could appear different when presented in a different context. Whole eggs in their shells are hard-boiled, then dyed red. These are presented to guests at the month-long celebration of a newborn child: and the eggs taste simply like hard-boiled eggs. They do taste noticeably different if presented in the form of tea eggs. The marbled look of the whole egg results from staining with a fragrant mixture of tea and spices. An egg tastes leathery and sweet, sour and also savoury when steeped in a mixture of black vinegar, ginger and pork hock and trotter. (I mean to describe this as a delicious mixture, although it may appear rather odd when itemised.) However, there is no pretence about the egg being anything other than egg in that particular mixture. Perhaps my acceptance of the differing appearance and taste of egg showed an early favouring of function over form?

Recipes in this Chapter

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