Cooking is something – I can say this with confidence – that many Indonesians don’t master. Generally we are spoiled rotten by our family who can afford maids (or sometimes maid and cook), and by the widely available good and cheap food on every corner in Indonesia. Because of this, some people never visit their own kitchen, or have more than one (one for display, one for pantry, and one for the maids who do all the cooking and where the real work presents. Seriously, this is true), or live merely by eating out or deliveries. It makes sense, anyway, that if you only need to pay USD 20.00 for a delicious main course in 5-star hotels, or much less in nice restaurants, why bother to cook?
Since Indonesians are spoiled all the way, it’s no wonder that few of us understand which knife to use for cutting meat and which one is for veggies. Horrible stories like burned toast or even burned boiled water, lack of kettle usage ability, and so on, becomes a constant joke in the country and abroad. I hardly meet someone who thinks cooking is a hobby, let alone an art. Those who do cook, usually discover their hidden talents by force of nature, being kicked out of home to study somewhere else, and as typical (poor) students, we get bored of Indomie instant noodles or suffer from acute homesick (especially when we live thousands miles away from our home country). In some rare cases, some of us are forced to cook when we get married and must impress the in-laws, or jump into a couplehood and are asked to pamper their partners, or sometimes cannot runaway from social responsibility for presenting signature dishes on holidays like Id or Christmas (the closest example would be my own mother who every year became so busy cooking for Id and she made from nastar cookies to her signature beef soup. It was a stressful time usually because we would have an open house for probably 7 days and wouldn’t know whether 13 or 30 people would turn up everyday).
I am, however, lucky (?) enough to be forced to cook since primary school. I was in all-girls school until junior high and as well as sewing, knitting, and reading (yes, every week we were shoved to the school library for several hours and must read and write a report what we have read afterwards), we had to cook something which we could sell to our schoolmates who were either brave enough to chew them or wanted to find a way to mock us, like our half-burnt spring rolls or half-fried doughnuts. It didn’t make me to be a cooking master, but at least I have become friendly and confident enough with kitchen utensils. But I never had to utilize my skill until I lived abroad and occasionally had to feed 3 other blokes who lived with me in our apartment. We’re certainly not rich enough to eat out everyday so soon I had learned to master many recipes – although mainly Chinese – including some cakes like muffins. Back to Indonesia with long hours of working and cheap food again, I soon only used my kitchen to boil a kettle for my morning coffee.
In Indonesia, mr. Mck and I hardly cooked, either we got home too late, or there’s always an invitation to attend a function where dinner will be served, or to have a reason to eat out. If we threw a BBQ party in our place, we asked Roos from Bugil’s to handle everything, and she would march into the BBQ arena with her soldiers and prepare the fabulous meal and the drink and serve them with style; all we had to do is show up and be merry. I couldn’t remember whether my high school friends could cook – it wasn’t something we normally talked about. We gossiped about latest music or movie, but never about our skill in the kitchen. If girls hardly talked about it, let alone guys who mainly discussed about cars or sport. During college I only knew one girl who likes to cook, and a guy who claims he could cook – that because his parents lived somewhere else and he had to nurture his younger twin sisters. At work cooking wasn’t a subject at all unless we talked about spending a weekend at company’s villa, and only one name came up as the absolute master of barbecue. People like my cousin Ayu who cooks and bakes as a hobby, or like Rocky who will be our head chef when we open our dream noodle station (we’re still figuring out the menu and the restaurant maybe open in the year 2050, so watch out), or Stuart’s dad who took some culinary lessons, or Sherwin who practices endlessly, are a rare kind.
However, I’m happy to tell you all that I know some blokes here who are just as clueless as spoiled Indonesians. Those are the kinds who have been pampered by their mothers or sisters so when they have to leave and live by themselves, they survive by take-outs and ready-meals. I have heard a famous story about a guy who had no idea about how to make tea, and put the teabag into the kettle and boil the water and the teabag altogether.
Anyway, when we’re back to live in Aberdeen, I have to dig my long-forgotten skill. I’m not a bad cook, at least Stuart lives up to now and hasn’t had food poisoning (yet). I could cook Asian food, from easy Chinese stir-fries to Vietnamese beef noodle (pho bo) with my eyes closed. I can make good spring rolls (thanks to years of training since junior high), and occasionally make them very spicy so Stuart can give them to his colleagues who brag they could take spicy food. But even that, only a week a go I was brave enough to try to make something different, like beef goulash (it was a successful attempt, thank you very much). I have cheekily handed the roast recipes over to Stuart, as I believe men make fire, men handle the meat, ergo men roast.
But even though I can cook and my friends look at me in awe (because they can’t, hehe), I know perfectly that there are others out there who bring this activity to a serious level. One day during lunch, there’s one lady whom I just met on the table claimed herself to be the queen of baking. She makes the best carrot cake in the world and only makes it once a year to keep it special. She has a special ingredients stuffed in her famous cake, and she refused to tell us what. She makes her own bread, and it’s much better than those in bakery shops. That day she planned to make a chocolate cake, and her husband can eat the entire cake by himself because the cake is – according to her – very very delicious. I felt like I was in the episode of Desperate Housewives, really. It was surreal.
I find it very intimidating when I hang out with expat friends who have been cooking for their entire life, those who collect and practice Nigella or Delia or Jamie Oliver recipes, and with Indonesian ladies, who reinvent themselves as cooking masters! I mean how can they suddenly change overnight from spoiled-Indonesians-who-cant-even-boil-a-kettle, to be those who bring sushi and other posh dishes to pot luck events? One day I showed up with crab cakes, and everybody complimented them and asked how I made them. Made them! I bought them from McLeish! (I’m practical *cough). And of course everyone starts telling each other how easy they cook this and that (hint: means they could do much more that the ones presented on the table).
Suddenly I’m put in a totally different situation, from nobody-cares-about-whether-you-can-cook-or-not, to be in an endless competition to become a master chef. Even for guys, as we had a cooking competition a few months ago, with Stuart and the other two competing to cook the best starter and main course, and three of us as the judges. Suddenly I find out myself flicking through the recipe books more often. Being a competitive as I am, I would re-emerge as a domestic goddess. Soon.
Anyway, I’m now building a solid track record and will find my signature dish. In the mean time, I still have Indomie for emergency situation…