I miss many things about Brisbane, my family being number one on that list. Inextricably linked with missing my family, I miss the food: my family’s cooking, the proliferation of fabulous food places near my home, and the Green Market every Saturday.
I have been ill last few days. Given that we arrived in UK in the middle of winter and this is my first major flu-like illness, I’ve done quite well. But I woke one morning with the most horrific sore throat: each time I swallowed, it felt as if I was choking on razor blades. Behind my right ear, some cruel pixie was hammering away; all my muscles had liquified but, inexplicably, my joints had become rock-hard.
Everything I ate that day was like cardboard; chewing was a chore and swallowing was distinctly unpleasant. When the food hit my belly, I felt queasy. For lunch I had a salad baguette, but the cursed sandwich-maker drowned my salad in mayonnaise. It was horrid. I passed the rest of my day in a moochy fuzz, which took my workmates aback as I am usually cheerful. I got two bad phonecalls in the late afternoon: one of which effectively destroyed my client’s case; the other intimated that the next day would be a flurry of frantic activity in which I would need all my wits about me. I put the receiver down and put my head in my hands, tears pooling just behind my eyes (I suck at being sick).
The best way to deal with feeling so bad is to mock oneself; I wailed: I want my mum! My workmate looked over at me. Oh! she said. What brough that on?
When I am sick, I want to eat chao. Only one person makes it better than my mum does, and that’s my eldest sister. When I was a wee thing, I often came home from school all scraped up – I got into a lot of fights. Occassionally, the whole household (me included) had to pull an all nighter to meet a clothes deadline (we were a home sweat shop). My eldest sister would cook up a pot of chao thit (meat congee) which we ate to keep us going, and so that Um did not have to cook a proper dinner.
I can recall quite clearly a particular occassion when I arrived after a rather unpleasant walk home and being told that I would have to neatly fold the mountain of cotton t-shirts in the living room. I was very good at looking pouty when younger (I still do a good line in pouts these days), so when my bottom lip stuck out and my eyes got all mournful, my eldest sis said: There’s chao thit in the kitchen. Get some and then come help.
I sat myself down at our octagonal dining table with a large bowl of chao and a porcelain spoon. The rice had been cooking all day and was a soft gelatinous mess intermingled with pinky grey gems of pork mince and dark green rectangles of thorny cilantro, slices of spring onions and sprigs of leafy coriander were liberally sprinkled on top. I added pepper, chilli and soy sauce as I went. Each spoonful revived me. I said to my sister, who was working nearby: I don’t know what you put in this. It’s like medicine. Um lovingly turned my words into a family anecdote: it is about her appreciative youngest daughter, and her skilled eldest one.
That is still my iconic chao memory. Every chao I eat now is an echo of that perfect bowl: little me at a table, legs swinging and my petty woes peeling away from me as each spoonful of hot, nourishing mushy rice slides down my throat, filling my belly with comfort and love. If anyone got sick, chao started simmering alongisde our usual dinner. We also had chao as late night suppers. There were many video nights that my siblings and I had when we were in our teens, which comprised chao in between b-grade horror movies and Hong Kong martial arts flicks. We got fancy with our late night chao: it became chicken chao, fish chao, crab chao – anything we could think of to add to the pot got thrown in. Some worked and became family standards; some were salutary lessons in mixing flavours.
None of the chao that I cook ever tastes as good as Um’s or my eldest sister’s, but it’s what I make for myself when I’m feeling poorly. The best chao is made with leftover rice. Because I do not eat rice everyday, I have to make chao from scratch*; I’m too impatient for it to turn out the mushy consistency I like, and that is so wonderful on sore throats. Often, I make a clear soup instead – but it’s chao that I really want, and chao that will heal me.
* There’s a Viet word for uncooked rice, that distinguishes it from cooked rice. I am not sure there is an English equivalent.