AV Kitching grew up in Malaysia before moving to England as a young adult. She, her husband and young daughter recently settled in Portage la Prairie, where a new life has left her longing for a taste of home.
My memories of my mother are inextricably linked with food. When I think of her I picture her hands methodically slicing onions into half-moon slivers. I can see her fingers deftly moving across a knob of ginger, transforming it into perfectly julienned strips. The image of the bottom of her palm smashing garlic with a cleaver, then tenderly picking apart the papery skin to reveal bruised cloves.
My mother’s hands are brown and strong, her movements swift and economical as she turns from countertop to stove. She is a gifted cook. There is rarely need for a recipe. Instead she relies not just on her unerring tastebuds, but also the sound of things; the gurgle of a stew, the lazy plop of a bubble as it breaks through the surface of soup, not a simmer yet not yet a boil.
As a child I sat perched in the kitchen watching her build her masterpiece. Layer by layer she added, tasting as she went along, a slight nod indicating that yes, things are as they should be. A little smile at me as I opened my mouth wide so I too could taste. So I too could take part in her alchemy.
It is these memories I reach for when the wind gusts outside my window and all I can see are drifts of white, a blanket of snow covering every inch of my lawn. Such an unfamiliar sight to me.
The summer I turned 18 was the last time I lived with my mother. That June I packed my bags and left the sweltering shores of Malaysia for the drizzly grey of London, England, a city I called home for 22 years. Until three months ago, when my Canadian husband and I packed up six years of a life together, cramming all we loved into four suitcases and two boxes, and flew some 5,000 kilometres with our daughter and our geriatric cat, to land in this country.
It was a hot August day when we arrived. The mercury rapidly rising and I — a woman born in the humid tropics — felt immediately at home. My skin drinking in the heat, quenching a primal desire for warmth I had forgotten lived in my bones.
Of course it’s a different picture now.
"It’s meant to be -11 tonight," my husband tells me. He grins at my widening eyes as the enormity of that double-digit negative number sinks in.
Outside the wind whips furiously. Ice crystals scatter from the eaves of our house blowing their way inside the door. I lift my face up, feeling their pinpricks on my skin. A million tiny cuts closing up as swiftly as they open.
My mother, who hates the heat even though that’s all she’s known for most of her life, would love it here, I think. Picking up my phone, I start typing, then think better of it. I know what I need and I know where it is and I will find it and I will make myself feel less cold.
I will make myself feel more at home.
The year my daughter turned three, my mother started emailing me her secrets. Every day, waiting for me in my inbox, would be a methodical list of ingredients followed by numbered instructions, a step-by-step guide to recreating meals from my childhood. I welcomed the appearance of these unsolicited messages, a thread stretching across the oceans to link a mother to her daughter and her grandchild.
As the storm kicks up again I start to slice my onions, turning them into translucent half-moons. I crush the garlic — skin and all — and with the back of my knife, smear the cloves across the chopping board, scattering in a few grains of salt to create a paste. I scrape a teaspoon against an inch of ginger, carefully peeling the thin skin and then julienne into (almost) identical strips.
While the oil heats gently in the wok, I gather all my ingredients, placing them next to me so I can work fast to appease the sharp desire for warmth in the pit of my stomach. As the alliums hit the pan, the crackle and scents of my childhood fill the house, rousing my five-year-old, who comes traipsing into the kitchen, her face creased from sleep.
My cooking has woken her up.
"I’m starving," she announces before pulling up a stool to watch me as I stir. I bend low to hear the gurgle of the stew, that lazy plop telling me it will be ready soon. Reaching out for my spoon, I dip in to check for seasoning.
She opens her mouth for a taste and suddenly I am home.
My mother’s chicken stew
30 ml (2 tbsp) ginger garlic paste (you can buy this in jars),
1.5-2 kg (3.3-4.5 lbs) chicken thighs, cubed
4 medium potatoes, cubed
3 carrots, cut into thick discs
250 g (8 oz) mushrooms
3 medium onions, chopped
2.5 cm (1 inch) ginger, julienned
5 cloves garlic, smashed
3 star anise and 1 stick cinnamon
45 ml (3 tbsp) oyster sauce
75 ml (5 tbsp) light soy sauce
15 ml (1 tbsp) thick, dark soy sauce
15 ml (1 tbsp) ground black pepper
15 ml (1 tbsp) Chinese cooking wine (optional)
30 ml (2 tbsp) cornflour +45 ml (3 tbsp) water
Salt to taste (start off with a pinch)
Marinate chicken in ginger-garlic paste for an hour.
Heat oil on medium, add star anise, cinnamon, ginger and onion. When fragrant, add garlic and chicken. Add a tiny pinch of salt and all of the ground pepper. Cover and cook for 5 mins.
Next, add potatoes and carrots and give it a good stir. Add enough water to cover the ingredients, cook for 20 mins. Add mushrooms, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Taste at this point before moving on to the next state.
Mix the three sauces and add to the pan, mix well. Simmer gently for 20 minutes till meat and vegetables are tender. Taste again. Add cooking wine, if using. Scoop some of the hot cooking liquid into a bowl, then add cornflour to it, stirring thoroughly to a smooth paste. Add paste to stew. Season to taste.
Serve with steamed rice and wilted greens.