I was maybe 10 or 12 , somewhere around there. I know I was in primary school, and we were still living in Brickfields, a neighborhood in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, with my Kuma, my dad’s oldest sister who had helped raise me. For lunch, my dad would take me to this hawker stall* that made killer laksa curry mee near our flat, and there I would order the same thing every time: only meehoon, no mee, extra fried tofu, raw cockles and extra spicy.
It may be a bowl of curry noodles, but with many ingredients (different types of noodles, such as the thicker yellow noodle, “mee”, or the thinner rice vermicelli, “meehoon”, beansprouts, tofu, chicken, chili paste, known as sambal, cooked or raw cockles, and sometimes fishballs and hard-boiled eggs) we could configure it to our personal taste. We went there so often that the lady who ran the stall knew us, and she would prepare our food the way we liked it even before we placed our order.
Eventually, I would see less of my dad, when he started to be away from the family more than he was with us, but I never stopped going to the curry laksa lady. A valuable lesson from an absentee parent is that you just have to learn to do some things on your own. My mom worked a nine-to-five job, and I would just make my way to the stall myself for lunch. As an only child of working parents, I became independent at an early age. Dining alone was never an issue for me, and so there I was, slurping my spicy noodles in the middle of a 90-degree day and sweating into the bowl at the same time. Good times.
I still think about that laksa lady to this day, although I’m pretty sure she’s no longer there; it’s been more than 20 years since I’d seen her. I’d order curry mee in Malaysian restaurants in the States, and sadly, it wouldn’t taste like hers. Now that we are here in Austin, there isn’t even a Malaysian restaurant in the area, which means if I’m homesick for the food, and if you know Malaysians, you know we’re always about our food, my only option is to make it myself.
And that I did, one day last week. Laksa curry mee, nonetheless. I was hesitant because it is a spicy dish, but you know how sometimes you’re just so desperate to experience something from your childhood that you would go to any lengths just to have a taste of it? Well, that was me. A Malaysian friend of mine swears by this laksa spice mix from back home, and because she could easily get it from Colorado, where she lives, she so sweetly mailed the packets of spice to me. I purchased the rest of the ingredients - all except the fresh raw cockles, which were hard to find here - and made it for dinner one evening.
I was surprised at how delicious it was. In fact, it tasted similar to what I remembered from the laksa lady, and slurping it on a hot Austin evening with sweat forming on my forehead, it took me, no, threw me back to the hawker stall I once loved. I hadn’t experienced anything quite that visceral in such a long time, but food does that doesn’t it?
As much as I loved it, however, I was a little worried about the girls. It was as spicy as I remembered it, and with a five- and three-year-old who weren’t raised on sambal and chilies, I had low expectations when it came to their reaction. I approached them with one bowl to first offer them a taste and braced myself as they took their first bite. Immediately, their eyes grew wide and they sucked in their breath, asking for water in between gasps for air through their teeth, making the “sss...sss...sss” sound.
Oh shit, this is too much.
I went to the kitchen with the bowl of laksa in hand to get their water, and looked around for a contingency plan. I don’t normally make the kids different food from what we’re having, even if it’s spicy or if it has a particularly strong flavor, but that evening, after their initial reaction, I felt guilty. Perhaps it was too soon for them to try this, let alone like it.
But as I was scanning around the kitchen for an alternative, I heard Pickle calling, “Mommy, where’s the food? I want another bite!”
I came back with water and after a few gulps, they went back for the next bite. And the next, and the next. I was floored. Just like I did, they savored each spicy bite and alternated it with water, with beads of sweat forming on their little nose. And that made me wonder if appreciating bold flavors is something that’s passed on by blood or by exposure. Either way, it’s working in my favor.
Now I can have my curry laksa at home, and eat it with my family too! It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to share a childhood favorite with the people we love isn’t it? After all, isn’t that why many of us spend all that time cooking in the kitchen? For sustenance, yes, but also for love – both for the flavors and the people for whom we’re cooking - and legacy?
I asked if they liked their meal and both nodded yes but admitted that it was “a little spicy”. I laughed and squeezed them. Oh, how I adore these girls – they never cease to amaze me. If I had any doubt about whether they really did enjoy their food, Pickle put that to rest the next day while her sister was at school because when given the option between leftover tortellini soup from dinner two nights ago or leftover laksa for lunch, she quickly answered, “laksa”.
Was I surprised? Hell yes. I was sure she’d pick the palate-friendly soup, but I should have known better than to expect otherwise from this little girl who’s as bold and complex and fiery as the bowl of noodles in front of her.
* If you’d like to learn more about these ubiquitous hawker stalls in Malaysia, here’s a good site to visit about the best hawker foods in Penang, an island state in Malaysia known for their beaches and food. You will see how crazy we are about our food -- we don’t care if the stall is by a roadside ditch or if it looks grungy; good food is good food, and we’d travel miles just to taste it.