Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Tuesdays With Bapak (16)
Of Beef Steak and Bamiah - May 29 2007
I remember gorgeous picnics on gorgeous Sundays in the backyard of our Section 5 house in Petaling Jaya.
The fare would usually be Bapak's beef steak and a whole lotta fun. Sometimes, we'd have Mak's nasi lemak as well.
If we were not outside and having a whole lotta fun, we were in the dining room inside, having the nasi lemak or beef steak or both and a lotta fun.
I remember gorgeous sunny Sunday mornings. I don't remember it ever being scorching hot.
I'm not sure I'd want to try picnics on Sunday mornings here and now. I'd have to wait for after-the-rain fresh and crisp mornings to get that perfect weather.
They just don't make Sunday mornings like they used to.
When I was a kid, I looked forward to Sundays because it would be a riot. It was so much fun because everybody would be at one place -- the garden or the dining room, doing things together.
Today, I can't imagine having a cook-out and a picnic with a brood of 8 children, making a ruckus -- in or outside the house. I think I'd be stressed out and need to be sedated.
We called his signature dish -- beef steak. Not just steak, but beef steak.
I remember calling it bistik, until it must have so exasperated Abang Med that he, a stickler for pronounciation, patiently helped me get it right.
As we grew older and moved to Section 16, the picnics were no more. They were replaced by Sunday brunches with Bapak's beef steak as the enduring main item on the menu.
When he was "away" those five years, the Sunday brunches and Bapak's beef steak were something we sorely missed.
Bapak's culinary expertise then was only confined to his ability to whip up his "famous" beef steak which was perfected over the years.
A few days after he was released from detention in 1981, I found Bapak in the wet kitchen of our house.
As usual, he was in his singlet and kain pelekat but he had Mak's apron on and was attempting to light the stove.
It had been so long not seeing Bapak in the kitchen that I was caught by surprise.
I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.
Mak was with him, giving him instructions on lighting the stove.
"Bapak awak nak masak hari ni", Mak remarked, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Now, it's not that we were surprised by Bapak's absolute enthusiasm to take over the kitchen because he had given us hints during our Tuesday visits that he had developed a pretty keen culinary skill and interest.
It's not that we were not paying attention to this revelation.
It was not something he had spoken about at great length. So casual were the conversations on the subject that it never quite hit us that it was becoming a serious preoccupation.
Yet, in a way we were amazed that he enjoyed whipping up dishes. At times we thought that it was a way of passing his time in detention.
All this happened, perhaps, during the last two years of his detention.
Bapak would broach the subject of a certain dish that he enjoyed and would ask Mak for the recipe.
When he first asked for a recipe, we were curious.
"Ada orang yang nak masakkan untuk Bapak?", one of us asked.
"Tak ada-lah, Aku yang nak masak," was Bapak's reply. That took us by surprise.
They let you cook? Who buys the stuff for you? Who helps you in the kitchen? Why are they letting you cook? Are you their servant? Have you got to wash the dishes? Is this a form of torture? How many people do you have to cook for?
There was really no way of knowing the truth then.
But what was clear was that he was genuinely earnest in wanting to know some recipes.
He asked Mak the recipes for soto ayam, bamiah, laksa johor, sambal goreng and lodeh -- all his favourites.
We thought he'd be, you know, just having some fun trying out.
Perhaps too, it was his way of telling us not to worry about him, that he was allowed some freedom to indulge in a new-found passion.
The next time we visited, he'd tell us that the soto ayam he made was too thin and pale.
Mak would tell him to apply estimation and approximation. Add a bit of this and that.
We didn't know whether to be amused.
However, these conversations were not relentless nor were they that frequent that we ever really had an inkling that he would be so at ease in the kitchen.
That day I found him in the kitchen, I tried to look cool.
It took a few moments for Mak's remarks to sink in.
Perhaps he was going fry eggs> Then, I remembered his yummy beef steak.
"Masak apa, Bapak?", I asked, coolly.
"Tak ada apa2. Daging masak merah, korma ayam, acar sayur dengan nasi minyak," he replied casually, and flashed that wicked grin because he knew I would be so utterly surprised.
I did something really stupid. I ran out of the kitchen to the dining room and shouted : "Bapak nak masak, bapak nak masak."
Kak Olin, who was already back home from England after finishing her law studies, rushed downstairs. Everybody rushed downstairs.
There was a flurry of activities in the kitchen. Everybody wanted to give a helping hand.
Mak must have been so amused by this unexpected spectacle that she just watched Bapak and us messing up her kitchen.
Even in our younger days, it was Bapak who would be going to the market, accompanied by Mak. It was simply a question of practicality.
The menu of the day revolved around Bapak's prefences so it only made sense that he decided
on the foodstuff that were needed.
So when Bapak was back home after his long "absence", Mak was delighted to have him accompany her to the market and allowing him to decide on what to buy.
Mak told us how Bapak caused a near commotion in the section 14 market one morning when he turned up with Mak.
The fish mongers and the traders remembered him and everyone greeted him in the way people greeted celebrities. Not only that, several people who knew him gathered around him to say hello. And then some.
Later, we found out that since then, Bapak who never haggled about prices, would get discounted prices for almost everything that he bought at the market.
Bapak told us that he embarked on a culinary journey during the later part of his detention.
By then, he had struck up a closeness with his "minders" who would entertain his requests for ingredients and the many recipes in newspapers or magazines.
They were his guinea pigs in his culinary experiments. Sometimes they would persuade Bapak to try out some recipes of dishes they liked. He was always game.
By the time he was released and back with us, his culinary repertoire was quite broad.
When Bapak decided to be cook for the day, we would see no fewer than five dishes for lunch or dinner.
If Mak had any complaint at all, it would be the clean-up after Bapak's foray in the kitchen.
Oh yes. How messy the kitchen was after Bapak had been doing his cooking.
Poor Mak. Sometimes her kitchen looked as though it had just been struck by a typhoon.
But under the circumstances, this was so inconsequential.
When more grandchildren made their debut in Bapak's life, he began treating them to Sunday brunches of his famous beef steak.
When he rejoined the New Straits Times as editorial advisor, he carved quite a reputation as a cook and appeared in newspapers, magazines and TV programmes -- usually whipping up a mean dish of "Bamiah" (a dish he learnt from Mak) which is akin to "Goulash" and eaten with slices of french loaf.
There were times he'd invite my colleagues who were all known to him, for chicken rice or soto ayam.
After Mak died, Bapak never missed preparing several dishes to go with "lontong" or "ketupat" for Hari Raya Aidilitri and Bamiah on Hari Raya Adil Adha.
Hari Raya had always been an open invitation to his friends, colleagues and fellow journalists to come on the first day, only because that was when Lontong and all the best dishes would be served.
The first day of Hari Raya would be a very busy day. Year in and year out, people would be already at our doorstep as early as 10am. By noon, the NST journalists who later became my colleagues, would be over in full force.
When Mak was around, they'd come for her lontong, lodeh, sambal goreng and her spicy fried chicken.
After she died, it was no different. They still came. But the chef had changed.
Those were the days.
These days, my nephews, Kak Piah's only child Irwan Hakim (now a 30 year-old married father of a toddler) and Kak Olin's eldest, 26 year-old Khairil Ahmad get misty-eyed thinking of Bapak's beef steak.
Lalin and Nina crave for his Bamiah because after Mak died, it was Bapak who would be preparing the dish.
Now they turn to Kak Olin who, after Bapak was indisposed and unable to cook up a storm in the kitchen, has got the dish near-perfect.
I miss Bapak's nasi minyak.
It has been so long since he stepped into the kitchen to whip up his favourite dishes, or any of our favourites.
It has been so long since he has been able to do many things that he had enjoyed doing.
There are many things Bapak has been unable to indulge in.
But, his days are still gorgeous. His house is filled with squeals, glee and the playful laughter of Sarah, Heikal and Sonia who come to his room and keep him company as THEY all watch THEIR cartoon network programmes.
They bring him fruits and chocolates.
Even baby Sharmaine makes frequent appearances in her Datuk's chamber.
Oh... have the school holidays already started? Do I hear Adam, Haris, Sofia and Soraya laughing and playing in the TV room?
And do I hear a very exasperated Lalin telling Sonia, her youngest: "Stop jumping up and down on Datuk's bed", as a very amused Bapak, in the very same bed, looks on.
(Photos: Searching through my collection of photographs. I was sure I took a shot of Bapak in apron. Couldn't find it. But here are three photos taken at his birthday celebration last year.
Khairil can be seen seated near the door in the picture with M. Nasir and behind Bapak in the picture with Sharifah Aini. )