Mum’s cooking tip: toenails must be trimmed off
When my Thai mother cooks, she always makes two different dishes. One is the farang, the Thai word for foreigners, commonly used to refer to white people. Where for my father, my sister and me, she uses a frozen bag of mixed vegetables, a cut of meat, and boiled potatoes, paired with spring onions she grew herself.
The other is her food. She calls it ‘jungle food.’ Fried fish, chicken legs, beef tongue, and of course, chilli. So much chilli. Sometimes the stench is so thick that when she cooks, she has to open all the doors and windows. It lifts in the air, as deadly as smoke, gripping the back of my throat and making us all choke on our coughs.
I can’t stand the taste of chillies. That’s almost blasphemous for me to say. Mum grows them on every free patch of soil we have. They fill up every nook and cranny in our freezer. They somehow sneak their flavour into every pot and pan. Chillies are a staple in our household, in the same way that the fridge is immovable, or the same way that the rice cooker is permanently etched into the bench.
I can’t decide if I dislike Thai food because of the tangy, spicy taste of chillies Mum pours into every dish, or if I just have no appetite for traditional Thai food. I’m Thai, but I can’t stand Thai food. It is an oxymoron that always makes me cringe whenever I say it out loud.
“Does your mum cook Thai food?”
This question usually comes up when I get asked about my heritage.
“Yes. I don’t eat it though.”
“You don’t like Thai food? How can you not?” they then ask, all agog.
Yes, person I have just met, it is something I have fought with myself for years and years now. I have been trying to get myself to like my mother’s food, to feel more connected to a culture I am entirely exempt from because I don’t speak the language or embrace the customs in our home. I can’t even like her food, the bare minimum. And it makes me feel less Thai somehow, as if my taste buds have a direct effect on my cultural identity.
Instead I shrug. It’s easier than explaining, “I just don’t.”
I was raised on fish and chips by the beach. On a Bunnings snag that my tradie father gave us on a day trip, on the classic homemade mince and cheese pies sold from the bakery that sits up the road from our house. Anything more flavourful than a spiced apple-and-pork sausage roll is too much for me. Pathetic, I know.
However, my aversion to her ‘‘jungle food’ is nothing compared to her own internal discomfort. I ask her questions as I type this out.
“I’m writing an article about Thai food. What’s the name of the chicken feet soup you make?”
“Why are you writing about Thai food?” She is displeased; I can tell by her expression.
“There are better things to write about,” hisses the furrow in her brow. I don’t want you to write about that”, whispers the downward curl of her lip.
“Thai noodles with fish curry and chicken feet,” she says instead.
I don’t think I’ll ever brave the dish myself, but it makes for a good title.
Another time, during my second year of high school, I had a shared lunch in my homeroom. Mum always revels in shared school lunches. She loves to show off her cooking talents; she hounds me for the reception her dishes receive the second I walk through the door. She worked at St. Pierres for a few years and did her time at a Pak’n’Save Deli; consequently, she is an excellent sushi-maker and gourmet-sandwich extraordinaire. She takes great pride in these skills.
“Can you cook Thai food instead?” I ask. “Everyone likes Thai food.”
She wrinkles her nose. “They won’t like my food. I’ll make sushi.”
Back then, I didn’t understand. Her ‘jungle food’ is beautiful, even if I didn’t particularly like it. Fish sizzling in the pot. Cling-wrapped bundles of spiced meat, lining up in the fridge. Thai pudding wrapped in banana leaves. Reduced-to-clear mangoes, mashed into a paste and spread thin onto baking paper. It dries on the porch in the summer sun, and she rolls them into flaking curls that taste tart and sweet at the same time (I like this one.)
Now I’m a few years past the shared school lunches. The start of 2023 brings a lunar new year celebration at our home; a rarity for my self-described hermit parents. Mum’s Thai friends swoop into our kitchen, bringing endless trays of meat, laden high with raw chicken, beef and pork. The backyard barbeque is lit and constantly in use, chilli smoke curling into the air. Children weave between my legs. I wade through throngs of people, aiming for the full food table. On one side of the table is Mum’s jungle food. On the other, farang food for the farang husbands.
I make my plate and perch on the edge of Mum’s circle of friends, attempting to make sense of the conversation I can’t understand, my plate piled high with food I’ll attempt to eat out of politeness.