Thursday, June 14, 2012

Alice Pung's Front Kitchen / Rear Kitchen

Alice Pung, author, Front Kitchen / Rear Kitchen

AT MY parents' home, there are two kitchens. The first has granite benchtops, cream-coloured shelves and a self-cleaning Smeg oven. It is the kitchen you see when you walk into the living area, filled with state-of-the-art modern inconveniences such as an electronic cling-wrap cutter and a soya bean milk maker. But this is the fake kitchen, used to boil eggs and reheat pasta sauce.
Front Kitchen
The second kitchen, sequestered at the back of the house and hidden by a wooden door, is the real one: my mother's kitchen. It is the workspace of an alchemist. Every surface is covered in a film of grease. The cooktop is blackened, the sink always half-filled with oleaginous water. Our first kitchen smells nice but the second kitchen smells great.
Chinese cooking is messy, noisy and haphazard, and if done properly the food spits at you while orange flames leap towards the ceiling. My mother once used a wok for so long that she burned a hole right through the centre. But the things that came out of that wok - prawn dim sum wrapped in tofu skins, Teochew rice cakes, lobster noodles, steamed ginger and soy fish, scallops and snow peas - were the stuff of salivating dreams and the memories of these meals lingered long in this airless room. Mum's dad was a Chinese cook in Cambodia; the gift of making something of nothing ran through their blood.

Rear Kitchen
A tidy artist is not a free artist. Confined to keeping things clean, they colour within the lines, cross-stitch within the frame, always worried that their space - not their art - will look bad. That's why mum had two kitchens: one in which she was free to practise her magic and the other to pretend that the magic did not take much effort. The kitchens of the best Chinese restaurants are always near the back and they look a bit like my mother's second kitchen.

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