Smell is the presence of another in ourselves - Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World

Like so many around me, I intensified my efforts at learning to cook during the pandemic. And like so many of my generation, the internet has been my teacher; filling in the gaps left by family, circumstance, and a lack of Home Economics classes at school.

And what a thorough and earnest teacher it is for a student willing to engage in some self-directed learning! To all the seasoned cooks for whom this is mere common knowledge, please read the following in the voice of a four-year-old sharing facts about dinosaurs:

Regular bay leaves are not a substitute for Indonesian bay leaves (daun salam), but NTUC-available kana chye (preserved olive) can replace the less common 碎米芽菜 sui mi ya cai (preserved mustard green);

There is a genre of YouTube videos created by Indonesian domestic workers in Taiwan that share both recipes and advice on living and working with Taiwanese employers;

To soften banana leaves for use you should steam, blanch or pass them over a dry flame, but you can also iron them; and

Steaming rice will give you a better texture than a rice cooker (but it requires boiling on the stove before transferring to a steamer, unless you have one of those lovely Indonesian steam pans, or something similar).

And yet for all this content, I am missing one essential component—I don’t know how exactly things should smell: what exactly does it mean to “sauté until fragrant”, 爆香, or “tumis sampai aromanya keluar”? As a result, I’ve eaten my fair share of bland or odd-tasting food, often alone, since my family doesn’t share my tastes.

Smell, it has been observed, is our most underappreciated sense: only when we lose it do we realise how much we once sensed through it. I am thinking of the grocery runs I made during the pandemic to fuel my new hobby. Leaving after midnight to avoid the crowds, I would make sure no one was watching, take a few furtive breaths of unmasked air, and be struck by the damp, grassy odour wafting from one of the last open fields in the area: a smell that in greater intensity would trigger unpleasant memories of National Service, but for now was a reassuring, invisible presence resting over the neighbourhood, one I could tell myself I had always known was there.

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