Friday, December 31, 2010

I smell bad, my hair is a mess...but I'm SO ready for 2011!

My hair is tied up in a bun. There are stray strands all over the makeshift mop-top. It stinks too.

My fingers, despite repeated scrubbing, reek of the spices I have been chopping and grinding since last night. I have to remember not to run them across my eyes or they will immediately sting and tear. Such is the effect of raw chili!

I'm cooking. And who cares if  I smell and look bad. I'm happy...and ready to welcome and embrace 2011 -- a new year and new decade.

It is going to be a good year. I already know it. All the hard work and struggles of the last few years are going to come to fruition. I'm on the last legs of grad school, working on a thesis on a topic I've been passionate about since I was 18. I have an internship with a news organization I've dreamed of working for since I was a little girl. And I'm in the process of applying for post graduate studies.

And I'm cooking. I've not been cooking for a while. I don't mean the whipping up of day-to-day meals. I mean all-out, committed, slave-over-the-stove (and chopping board) cooking that Southeast Asian cuisine is about.

The foods of the region I come from is so rich in spices, subtle flavors and layers of tastes that anyone who tries it for the first time will be blown away, mind, body and soul. Food reflects cultures, and this is what Southeast Asia is like -- multi-layered, diverse, and constantly stimulating to the senses.

As you can imagine, the cooking process is pretty much the same...layers of effort. It begins with preparing the spices and herbs -- from commonly used garlic, shallots, ginger to galangal, tumeric, lemongrass, daun lima (lime leaves), etc. Coriander, cumin...all in a cacophony of fragrant concoctions. Some are to be diced and pounded into a paste. Some are to be used "neat" to perform its olfactory duties of its own volition.

If the spices and herbs are a choral of smells, then the sauces would be an orchestra of tastes. There must be hundreds of different combinations and permutations that chili, pepper, lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, shallots can be blended together to make a delightful condiment. Sauces are essential companions to many Southeast Asian dishes. Getting the tone and tune right for them is critical to the enjoyment of the overall alchemical performance.

Cooking the dishes usually require stir-frying in a huge wok or slow-boiling in a huge pot -- or both. At this stage, the layers -- text and sub-text -- and the order of layering, are important. The oil, garlic, shallots; the paste, spices, herbs, and then the meats/fish/seafood or vegetables and often, coconut cream or milk. Some dishes need to be cooked in two, or three parts, and then put together in an ensemble of strings, wind and percussion.

Cooking to welcome a new year and new decade is music to my ears. I can't think of anything I'm happier doing in this moment (except taking a lunch break to send New Year's greetings to the other side of the world which has already stepped into 2011).

The menu is as multi-cultural as the wonderful guests who are coming to welcome the new year with me.

Hors d'oeuvre include cheese, pate and cute Chinese spring rolls. There will be two choices of salad -- a Thai papaya salad with crushed peanuts and a Japanese inspired enoki-and-sprouts creation. Traditional Chinese wanton (dumpling) and bak choy in a clear broth helps to clear and prepare the senses for the spice-loaded main dishes. At this point, a trio will take centerstage -- Thai green chicken curry, sayur lodeh (a colorful Indonesian vegetable dish) and glass noodles pepper shrimps (a mashup based on Vietnamese and Thai influences). The trio will be accompanied by two backup staples: a classic white rice (of the long grain Thai fragrant variety, not the lumpy, short grain whatever you get packed into boxes from the takeouts) and a darker, enhanced cousin, Thai black olive fried rice. The sweetness that rounds off the meal will of course has to come from the west -- a can-can finale of fruits, chocolates, ice-cream and cakes.

Cooking is music to my ears. I can only cook with love and passion. I can't think of a better way to welcome the new year and new decade that I know will bring amazing new experiences and paths.

Now, I must get back to the composition, rehearsal and conducting of my symphony. Happy New Year, everyone.

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