Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eating out is out for me

I’ve learnt my lesson: Home is where the safe food is

HONG Kong starlet Ella Koon was recently nicknamed “hell’s chef” after the dishes she whipped up in celebrity food show Beautiful Cooking caused the guest judges to throw up. Later, when challenged to defend her lack of culinary success, she retorted: “Living in Hong Kong, eating out is never a problem, is it?”

Yes, living in Hong Kong — or for that matter, most parts of Asia — eating out is never a problem. Walk onto a street and you’ll be sure to see a hawker stall around one corner or a restaurant around another.

There’s no call to have to cook at all. Why should you when there are others who can conjure up something far tastier than any of your humble efforts for just a dollar or two more than the cost of the ingredients themselves?

That’s probably why Hong Kong kitchens are so tiny. Mine has just enough space for a sink, fridge and two-burner cooker. The toaster has to be stacked on top of the microwave oven and my Kenwood mixer has been banished to the dining room.

Recently, after I posted some food photos on Facebook, my friends from Europe remarked: “You guys seem to eat out a lot, huh?” What was perfectly normal to me was strange to them.

For them, “outside food” (whether dining out or getting a Chinese takeaway) is so expensive that every meal not cooked at home is an occasion. They thought we are extremely wealthy to be able to do that every day.

When I was working in Singapore, we’d eat out or pack food home every weekday. After all, the coffeeshop was just around the corner and by the time I reached home at 7.30pm, I was just too tired to chop, slice, fry and clean up afterwards.

But now I am thinking of heading back to the kitchen again. The catalyst has been my back-to-back bouts of stomach flu — most likely triggered, according to my doctor, by bacteria in some food I’d eaten.

I’m not talking days. My two episodes lasted two weeks each with a gap of only a week between. One was caused by undercooked chicken rice and the other by some dodgy curry rice.

I had them for dinner at different “dai pai dongs” (coffeeshops) in different areas but the result was the same: Diarrhoea, a stomach ache and vomiting so bad that I had to live on plain porridge, crackers and Pocari Sweat for days on end.

“This would never have happened to me in Singapore, where the food is so clean,” I remember telling my husband.

Famous last words, of course, seeing as a few days later, the Indian rojak food poisoning broke out, killing two people and causing one woman to suffer a miscarriage. It was almost unheard of. Yes, you knew that bad food could cause you great discomfort but for it to kill...

And then, just this weekend, another dozen people or so came down with food poisoning from eating steamboat. What is going on? You hear of such things happening elsewhere, but not in Singapore.

That’s why I think our mothers were right. Home-cooked food is the best. You know where it has come from and has been prepared.

It’s a pity really that a lot of us have become like Ella Koon. We have become so used to others cooking for us that we don’t even know how to boil an egg.

I know of many working women who wear their lack of culinary skills almost as a badge of pride. They seem to think that they’re so important they’re above such housewifely pursuits.

Why be proud of a lack of ability? I can’t assemble an Ikea bookcase or pilot a plane but you don’t see me crowing about that.

Maybe it’s time we brought back cooking as a skill to be proud of. Maybe we should make home economics compulsory for all — for boys too, because why should they expect others to do for them what they can do themselves?

Then we can stop being so reliant on outside food. And for those who love to boast: “I can’t cook to save my life”, maybe it’s time you learnt. Because one day, it just might save your life.

Tabitha Wang is on the lookout for a good recipe for homemade Indian rojak. Can anyone help?

From TODAY, Voices – Friday, 17-April-2009

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