From Borneo to Oslo Article

My husband Sven and his son Fredrik (from his first marriage) still sometimes poke fun at me when they remember my first real attempt at making omelette. I cracked some eggs into a bowl and tentatively asked Fredrik, “What else do you put in an omelette?” He suddenly looked as helpless as I felt and said, “Err, dunno, cheese may be?”. I should have considered that as my first calling but it was not until years later that I even thought about taking cooking a little more seriously.

I am originally from the smallest town you can imagine in East Malaysia (Northern part of Borneo Island). I can still remember the taste of wild vegetables that was handpicked by mum and dad from the jungle. We would sometimes pack them in banana leaves and grilled them on a steel rack that dad put on some wood logs over the fire. The whole affair was like a little ceremony. Dad would work on the fire, mum would finish up with the marinating and seasoning, and my sister and I would sit wide-eyed on the stairs. One of my favourites was chicken cooked in bamboos; the natural sweetness of the steamed meat with the unique taste of the bamboo was unbelievable. Mum usually sent dad to do the grocery shopping and to the market but I still remember the occasional trips to the wet market with mum. I think for a small kid, the scene was unsettling and my mum never bothered to explain anything, I was just tagging along. However, amidst the noises of people bargaining I recall there were tapioca roots and leaves, lots of vegetables, fruits such as rambutans and durians, fried banana stands, fish, meat and the heady smells of herbs and spices.

Years later, I went to West Malaysia to study and work. I remember the kitchen in the first apartment I rented when I was working in Kuala Lumpur. It had nothing but instant noodles and a couple of pots and pans (they came with the apartment). Breakfast would be a fantastic warm noodles dish or rice with prawn sambal at the food stand near the office. My favourite lunch was a quick drive to the sushi bar and dinner was either with friends at the food stalls, at a restaurant or just instant noodles at home. I didn’t know it then, but I took a lot of things for granted.

After marrying a Norwegian, I moved to Oslo in 1998. The cold was not a problem. I was experimental enough when it came to food and could eat almost any Norwegian food; I even loved ‘lutefisk’ (steamed dried cod, not fancied by some locals). However not having warm food for breakfast or lunch was something I really missed. My sister would send me big boxes of instant noodles from Malaysia and I would cook myself rice and whatever I could muster for warm food. The problem was I didn’t know how to cook anything. In the past food came from my mum (or dad), convenient food stalls or restaurants. So my long-suffering husband had to keep taking me to Asian restaurants (at that time there was only one good Chinese restaurant in town in Oslo) just to keep me from being cranky. That, by the way, should have been my second calling.

One year turned to two and my husband’s family started giving me ‘the hints’. At first it was the food magazine subscription, then cookbooks started to come in as presents for our birthdays and Christmas. I didn’t know exactly when, but it finally dawned to me that it was ‘my turn’ to invite them for dinner. Was I that Thick?

The thought of cooking for the in-laws totally freaked me out so I still didn’t invite them over. I just brushed it aside and being busy at work helped me remain in denial. I just didn’t know where to begin and what to do. In my desperation, I invited some friends over for dinner. While my most understanding of friends told me the food was great, I knew that taking a chicken, coating it with red curry paste and yoghurt and slapping it into the oven was going to be, and was, a disaster!

The Tiny Kitchen In Oslo

Third year, I still had not invited Sven’s family over, but I started writing notes from BBC’s ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ program. At last, though I didn’t know it then, it was the first time I really tried to face up to the problem and did something about it. I started watching Delia Smith’s ‘How To Cook’ and last year ordered her books from Amazon. I started teaching myself the basics of cooking, though I was totally disorganized about everything culinary. But amidst the chaos, one day suddenly everything didn’t seem that hard anymore. In our tiny kitchen I started making my own Malaysian dishes and slowly going into whatever Delia told me to do! My first big engagement was to invite people for a satay grilling party and everything went smoothly. This success encouraged me, so I started to read more.

Now, about year later, my kitchen is overflowing with cookery books, so much so that they are taking more and more shelf space throughout our tiny apartment. My husband is my biggest support and he totally understand that what was initially a self-taught thing has become a passion for me. I still don’t know as much as I would like to, but I am cooking! I have started to cook a lot of things, my quiches are looking good, I am starting to know my fish, I am actually making my own stocks (a big step for me), my husband loved my French Onion Soup and my oven are actually looking worn!

What I understand now is this; there is this threshold that I had to walk over in order to face my insecurities when it comes to cooking. Once I have embraced the fact that ‘I could do this’ it was such a relief because then I could actually get to work. ‘Get to work’ for me means to do what I love doing now, learning more and more about cooking and the basics. I believe once you know some basics you can start relying more on your own instincts and be more independent to enjoy the process. In learning I read cookery books like reading novels, armed with my gastronomy dictionary and notes. When I saw Nigella Lawson’s ‘Nigella Bites’ series I realized that she had indirectly taught me one important thing, to be more comfortable with what I was doing. I thought I was nuts reading one cookery book after another!

The fact that I live in Oslo does not help much when it comes to looking for some authentic ingredients. For example I would have to go to the bigger supermarkets for ricotta and mascarpone cheese, parma ham, chorizo sausage; I still can’t find dashi or bonito flakes whenever I have the urge to cook Japanese food and I wish I have my own butcher that can help me! I also still struggle to find the English-Norwegian-English translations for a lot of things. But I think striving so hard to get exactly what I want makes it a little sweeter in the end. I realized I have to know my commodities and the local produce to make everything fall into place. Norwegian cooking is definitely one of the things I am teaching myself; I have learnt to love it too. You see it’s the perfect setting, placing someone like me, who used to eat spicy hot food almost every day , in a place like this, which appreciates the mild natural tastes and goodness of food rather than mask it. I have learnt to be ‘in the middle’ chef, enjoying the bests of both worlds.

There are a lot more good Asian restaurants in Oslo now. I love to eat out and have someone cook for me, like I used to in Malaysia. However there’s a lot more satisfaction in trying to cook myself. After all, that dinner that I should have done for Sven’s family is long overdue. It’s definitely my turn now, but even though I’m the foodie of the family I hope that they keep those cookery books coming …