Monday, September 10, 2007

The joy of eating

09 Sep 2007, ST

By Tan Hsueh Yun

IN THE animated movie Ratatouille, about a rat who yearns to be a chef, there is a character nicknamed the Grim Eater who just cracks me up.

The vinegary old fart is a food critic who writes his pieces in a coffin-shaped room. Nothing he eats pleases him.

I don't understand people like that.

You know that old chestnut, never trust a skinny cook? Well, the same can be said of people who don't enjoy their food.

Maybe I'm just a greedy person who prefers the company of other greedy people, but I think those who appreciate the sensual joy of eating tend to be happier, more engaging, and more, well, fun to be around.

From personal experience, they also tend to have more of a zest for life, to be more open to new experiences.

But I'm not talking about couch potatoes who put away mountains of fast food and large tubs of cottony ice cream to fill whatever gaping holes they have in their psyches.

I'm referring to those who can appreciate the crisp sweetness of an apple, who will suck the last bit of marrow goodness from a sup tulang with gusto, who will tuck into a plate of char kway teow without carping about calories and cholesterol, who will inhale a chocolate truffle and close their eyes with pleasure.

Take my friend S. Back in the day, a group of us penniless rookies would sometimes go to Swensen's for their inexpensive set lunches. One of our favourite options was a plump roasted game hen. When in doubt, choose something bone-in, it usually just tastes better.

You always knew when she was done with the bird because there would be nothing on the plate but a small, tidy pile of bones, each one stripped absolutely clean. She was always smiling after a game hen lunch, too.

Over the years I've collected people, and stories about people, who relish their food like that. They have enriched my meals, made me appreciate my food even more, and made me see the food I eat in a different light.

A colleague told me years ago about how her niece's eyes lit up when she first tasted a very good double-boiled soup.

I remember the delighted expression on my mother's face when she first ate foie gras.

Recently, a friend sent me a text message from an Italian restaurant.

'I cried when I tasted the blue cheese pizza,' he said. 'It's the best I've had in Singapore.'

I wish I had been there to see that.

But I was witness to food ecstasy this past week, and what an experience that was, too.

The ecstatic person in question is a colleague who has only recently cottoned on to the joy of Japanese food.

One time after a meal, some of his friends had to give him a lecture, telling him firmly that the very appreciative noises he had made were not appropriate at lunch time - he was waxing lyrical about conveyor belt sushi.

Some of us wondered what would happen in a proper Japanese restaurant.

So we made dinner reservations at one of our favourite ones and spent several days telling him in very elaborate detail what we would order.

It didn't get off to a good start, that meal. For some inexplicable reason, the restaurant gave our table away before we arrived and I was sure I was going to burst a blood vessel.

But they got their act together, we were seated, the food started arriving and pretty soon, we were all feeling very mellow.

This prompted someone to declare: 'What's better than having good food is sharing it with good friends.'

Kanpai to that.

Shouting over the din in the restaurant, we told our friend: 'Make all the noise you want, nobody's going to be able to hear you.'

Even without the soundtrack, the joy on his face was evident. You should have seen him when the sashimi arrived. Think kid in a candy store and then some. Then when he bit into a fatty piece of toro or tuna belly.

There was fresh, sweet King prawn sushi; baby eel or anago, lightly sauced and rolled around a ball of rice flavoured with yuzu zest; succulent grilled beef. Some of us were so happy we pounded the table.

But that was nothing compared to his reaction to the chef's special sushi, a blockbuster, over the top, in your face concoction of seared tuna belly on top of a scoop of sublime uni or sea urchin, on top of chopped fatty tuna on top of a small pillow of rice drenched in unctuous tuna oil. We call it torounitoro.

We couldn't speak for a while.

'I'm melting,' he said.

Now, I can sense disquiet and outrage among sushi purists. Hey, Grim Eaters, lighten up and try a piece.

If you're lucky, you'll melt, too.

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