December 13, 2010

My Tiffin Moments: When Traditions Evolve With Time

It was one of those tiring weekday evenings after work. The moment I finished reading Ivy’s email, excitement gushed through within me.

Memories flashed back, as if I was hiding in one corner of the dining area, witnessing my mom packing food into her tiffins the night before so she could bring to work the next day. I could faintly recall how old I was, though.

One thing for sure: For lunch, my mom almost always had a meager portion of cooked brown rice, some leftovers such as a vegetable stir-fry and a slice of fried mackerel. Occasionally, she would treat herself to the salt-baked chicken bought from the night market earlier.

After completing my routine workout within the neighborhood, I immediately ran to my mom and asked, “Mama, do you happen to keep the tiffins?” Without hesitation, she nodded. “Where would they be?” I investigated further.

Lately, my family relocated and has barely settled down. The new kitchen is still rather messy. With the instructions given, I rummaged through the wet-kitchen cabinet. “Bingo,” I exclaimed to myself. “I found ya!” To my surprise, there are not one but two sets of tiffins in our house. They are made of stainless steel and bear a very simple design.

There is a confession I have to make, though, and that is, I fail to preserve my mom’s practices — if at all. Because my interest in culinary art was founded during my college days in the States, when it comes to the kitchen, I do not resemble my mom. I have always been an advocate of multiculturalism. My mom, on the contrary, has always been a proponent of traditionalism.

Albeit an ocean apart, my American family is still influencing my culinary practices and eating habits. They are compassionate, friendly folks who are eager to befriend with people from around the world; who are curious about different cultures; who would love to try out new things, including food. I adopted these practices and have not looked back.

Chinese New Year 2007
February 2007: My first Chinese New Year in the States, with my American family and friends, as well as other international students

Not only did they let me discover my love of cooking and baking, my American family also brought me into the world of American country cooking. I, on the other hand, introduced them to Asian and French food. (I went crazy about the latter at that time, particularly, desserts and pastries. Oh! Have I told you they also make their own kimchi?)

Anna, one of my American sisters, made dolmas once and brought some along for us to try. The dolma is a kind of stuffed vegetable dish, which normally has a filling of cooked rice, ground meat, vegetables and grains, herbed and spiced and wrapped in grape leaf. Her Iraqi neighbor taught her family about the dish.

The Edwards and Henry the Dog
Summer 2007: Anna with her family and pet dog

I was trying to decide on what to fill the tiffins with, and that scene seized my attention.

Since I returned home a little over a year ago, I have noticed that there is a sizable population of Middle Easterners and North Africans in Kuala Lumpur. Before I left Malaysia 3 years ago, that was not the case.

My new neighborhood, which is close to the city’s “Korean Quarter,” is also housing quite a number of Middle Eastern families and diplomats. In the evening, as I jog in the streets, I can see them spending quality time together as a family, be it through playing badminton or taking a walk before dinnertime. In fact, the house on my right is rented to a Middle Eastern family. Needless to say, it has become easier for me to buy foodstuff from Middle Eastern grocers.

Part of my new neighborhood, in Kuala Lumpur, ...
The part of my new neighborhood from which you can see the Kuala Lumpur Tower (L) and Petronas Twin Towers (R)

To appreciate and learn about different cultures is a way to improve and advance, especially in a multicultural society like Malaysia. In the midst of preserving my own root, my life experience has molded me into a melting pot of cultures. My American family has set a good example for me to learn from. I like the idea of learning about cultures through food.

Remembering Anna, her Iraqi neighbor and her dolmas, I was inspired and concluded that tiffins are not just for the usual dishes my mom prepares. Tiffins can be opened up to endless possibilities amid an influx of new cultures. I was curious about the food brought in by these new immigrants. So, I decided to cook North African dishes for the first time. I made tagine and couscous.

The tagine got its name from the heavy clay pot traditionally used to prepare this dish. It involves an interesting blend of spices and ingredients, which lends interesting and complex flavors to the hearty stew. As I prepared the tagine under the guidance of the recipe, I learned a lot. The cooking process was an eye opener. So is the couscous, which was something I would consider unfamiliar before that.

Tagine (Image courtesy of Mediterranean Diet)

I packed the tagine and couscous to work the next day and shared them with my colleagues. I wanted to let them experience something new. We loved the fluffy and savory couscous. We were fascinated by the multidimensional quality of the tagine: It has got textures and an indescribable flavor combo that tastes naturally sweet and curry-like. It teases and tickles your tongue with nuances of spiciness; however, the creamy stew is no curry. A colleague even took some home for his wife to try.

I carry on with the tradition of storing my lunch in the tiffins. At the same time, I take pride in my own identity and the set of unique experience that makes me who I am. I am still my mom’s daughter, a Malaysian, who under the inspirations of my American family, has learned to appreciate different cultures through food. I am glad that I picked up something new about my new neighbor.

Chicken and Chickpea Tagine
Serves approximately 4
Adapted from Mark Bittman
Originally published with The Minimalist: “A Shortcut to Morocco”
In The New York Times; on Feb 25, 2004

2 Tbsp cooking oil
2 Tbsp butter — salted or unsalted is fine

1 large red onion — peeled; halved; and, sliced thinly

2~3 cloves of garlic — peeled; and, minced

Salt – to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne

1½ ~2½ cups chopped ripe tomatoes
2½ cups dried chickpeas — soaked overnight; drain well before use; you should get 4 cups soaked chickpeas eventually, and if you end up with more, use them
½ ~ ¾ cups raisins / chopped pitted dates / mix of raisins and chopped dried apricots
½ ~1 vanilla bean — split lengthwise

½ cup water — or more
(B) spices — to taste

8 chicken thighs / 4 leg-thigh pieces – cut in two

Chopped cilantro/parsley leaves — to garnish and serve
  1. Put (A) in a large casserole or kettle, which can be covered later, and turn heat to medium-high. When the butter melts, add the onion, cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens.
  2. Add the garlic and (B) to the casserole, cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds.
  3. Add (C) to the casserole, and bring to a boil. If the mixture is very dry, start by adding about ½ cup water. If the mixture is still very dry, add more water so the mixture is almost submerged in water. Now, season to taste with (B) spices.
  4. Rub the chicken with salt, and nestle them into the mixture. Cover. Five minutes later, adjust heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook till the chicken is very tender, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Taste, and adjust seasoning with (B) spices.
  5. Garnish with chopped cilantro, and serve with e.g. couscous, steamed rice, pita or any type of flatbread.

Basic Couscous
Serves approximately 4
Adapted from “The Kitchen Diaries,” by Nigel Slater

300 g couscous
Finely grated zest of about 4 lemons

About 1L stock, or less — chicken or vegetable or whichever you prefer
Salt — to taste

  1. Place (A) in a mixing bowl, which can be covered later, and rub together to unleash the lemony aroma and citrusy oil in the zest. Set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Taste and season with salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous. It should cover the grains by about 2 cm. Cover the mixing bowl with its lid, and set aside until the liquid has been absorbed by the couscous.
  3. Uncover the mixing bowl, using a fork, gently fluff up the couscous. Dish up and serve on the side with e.g. tagine, grilled chicken, or salad.


lena said...

thank you for sharing this..i enjoyed reading it.

Swee San said...

oh there's vanilla bean in the tagine ??

Meldylocks and Her Three Bears said...

I like your post! No wonder you won la...!

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

Lovely, lovely post, Pei-Lin!

Kitchen Corner said...

Hi Pei Lin,
Really admire your life with full of interesting story and lovely people around you! I like couscous because it's easy and can be prepared in no time especially when I lazy to cook rice :P

Jess @ Bakericious said...

Pei Lin, I am eyeing on the chicken, making me hungry now.

Quay Po Cooks said...

Good for you to carry on tradition. I am sure your mum is very proud of you for being who you are. I agree that the best way to learn about other cultures is through food. I enjoyed reading your posts.

wendyywy @ Table for 2..... or more said...

Wow, so much was cut off from ur original submission.
I've never eaten middle eastern food, except for some lebanese meatballs at KLCC's food court, which is now, no more. I can't find that stall there now.

Bonnie Williams said...

Pei-Lin, you wrote an excellent story! Congratulations on winning the contest! I have been wanting to ask how you like the new house. We are having a lovely sunny and cold day here at our house. Take care!

Medifast Coupons said...

You did a great job, looks really good!

Angie's Recipes said...

I always want to have a tagine, but never sure what to do with it. I think my mum still keeps one of the tiffins somewhere in the pantry...with which she used to bring daily meals to my opa (her father), rain or shine. Sighs...another long sad story of the family.

noobcook said...

your colleagues are really lucky to enjoy such delicious home-cooked food from you! :p

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

@lena: Thank you so much for being so, so supportive all along! I hope to see you one day in Ipoh!

@Swee San: Yea, your eyes are still alright. There's vanilla bean in the tagine. =)

@Melody: No lah ... Malu lah ... Still learning to better my writing ... *Blushing*

@Ju: Thanks so much! You're excellent, too!

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

@Grace F.: Haha! Yea! Couscous needs no advance preparation but only 10 to 15 minutes' of waiting ... *LOL* Erm ... Not really, I guess it's how we look at life and live our lives that makes the difference. Working life can be both dull and fun, too, depending on you take it.

@Jess: *LOL* Some drumsticks for your breakfast perhaps? HAHA! Thanks, buddy!

@Quay Po Cooks: Thank you for being very supportive! I really can't put myself into imitating someone else ... It's just weird!!??

@Wendy: That was why I said so much was omitted from my original submission ... It sounded so different with all the edits ... Really? Since I hardly eat out and was away from home for about 3 years, I really dunno what happened during that time especially ... HAHAHA! Like what you learned about on MSN that night, I'm addicted to Moroccan food!!! OMG!! HAHAHA!

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

@Medifast Coupons: I remember you! Thank you for being very supportive all along!!

@Angie: Nah ... I used kettle for this tagine dish ... Not THE tagine. Yea, tiffins carry memories to most Asians ... I know what you mean ... Don't worry, K? Take care!

@Wiffy: YES, they are! Hahaha! Oh, well ...

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

@Bonnie: Hey!!! Thank you so much for the highly moving and encouraging words! You guys have ALWAYS been a BIG source of inspiration for me in almost everything I undertake! No doubt, we all LOVE the new house as it's WAY more spacious, in a safer neighborhood, and is close to a supermarket! Haha! That's what I call convenience. Well, we are happy with what we have now. I know, I know! I heard over MPR Minnesota and most parts of America have been having EXTREMELY cold weather ... subzero temperature ... Well, I've not had that for the longest time in my life since I left MN. I promise when I do come back for a visit in MN, I'm gonna plan for a summer trip ... NOT winter! I don't like winter! Hahaha! Yeap, I still can celebrate Fourth of July but not Thanksgiving or Christmas with you guys, though. Mom, take care too!!! I LOVE YOU ALL BACK IN MN!!! =)

Little Inbox said...

Nice sharing.
By the way, I just korek your old recipe on 5-4-3-2-1 pork ribs, and I can't wait to give it a try! Mouth-watering now thinking of the black vinegar, hehe...

Anna said...

Very nice article Pei-Lin. I am curious about the picture of us. It seems so long ago, and the kids look so young, and I don't recognise the vehicle we are in.
Do you have a tangine? I have thought it would be fun to try one out. I have clay bake ware that I pretend are similar, the shape isn't though. Thank you for including me!

qinyi said...

Your original article is a delightful read! Way nicer than the 'chopped up' published one! Hope you are making full use of your tupperware.:)

Shirley @ Kokken69 said...

Another great read, Pei Lin. I have never been a big fan of middle eastern cuisine but Have been curious about the tangine for a long time. I am intrigued by the cooking mechanism using the tangine....

Victor said...

I love tangine. Thanks for sharing it!

Food For Tots said...

I totally can't recall when was the last time I used tiffin. Your dish looks very delish. Merry Xmas and happy holidays to you and your family! (Pssst! Ask your superior to send me her new contact. I lost hers. Hehehe!)

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