The Persistence of Memory
Let me fly you, oh dearest reader, on wings of memory to the heady era of the early nineties. There was a time, oh my loves, and you may not believe it so, but please believe me that there was a time that sweet chilli sauce was bold, and new, and interesting. And ubiquitous, eventually. But it wasn’t always here with us, enrobing thick, glossy sour cream as a gourmette option on your potato wedges, nor for adding zest and zing to your defrosted crumbed chicken. Yes, the rose-tinted-glasses of nostalgia can colour your perception, oh dearest reader, especially you kids with your lo-fi-chillwave-beats-to-study-slash-relax-to and your tacky tracksuits and your high-waisted jeans and dangly-earrings and choker necklaces, but the nineties were an… aspectactular time for lots of things. And this story we are circling is the story of the first time we went to a Thai restaurant.
It was an exciting proposal to us, to try something entirely new. “Can we get sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken on fried rice at the Thai restaurant, mum?” we asked.
“Probably not” she replied.
(You must remember, beloved, that Thai food had not yet taken off back in the nineties, and white people were somehow even whiter back then too.) And yet still we went, all undaunted, into the heady frontier of a new culinary territory. And we were seated, and we weren’t given lacquer chopsticks but rather forks and spoons, so we didn’t need to ask for something more manageable by little fingers. And there were noodles, lo, but we didn’t know what they were, and there were small deep-fried things, but they had stuff like lemongrass in them and we didn’t know if we liked that. And there were dishes that had, to us as sub-ten-year-olds, names with the endlessly hilarious word ‘poo’ in them, which were made of pork and crab, but we didn’t know if we liked crab. And we had some things ordered for us, and we picked at them, and dipped them in sweet chilli sauce and we were not initially swayed by what would eventually become one of my favourite cuisines in the world.
The one standout memory from this trip was that the noodles – presumably a humble pad thai – were doused in fish sauce, and they smelled funny. More specifically, they smelled kinda like the side of our house where the dogs lived. And this was an odd thing for a wee little chap to process – why would people eat that? I was unsophisticated. I didn’t know of the history of things like garum, or hakarl, or worcestershire sauce, or gapi, or fish sauce. I didn’t know that dank, odorous, fermented things could present a menacing exterior to ignorant nostrils, and a delectable soft underbelly to a palate and an innerbelly. I just smelled something and didn’t know why it was worth trying, and that was that.
Of course, this was an error that corrected itself over time, like almost everything else I rejected in my nebulous, youthful ignorance. But one of the adults present at that meal still won’t eat Thai food thirty years later. That’s thirty years later. Thirty years later!
“Hey! How’s it going? I haven’t seen you in ages! Where do you want to go for lunch? There’s that cafe, or there’s the Thai place…”
“Thai? No, I wouldn’t eat it, it smells like the dog run…”
Thirty years later. Imagine passing on Thai food for three decades because of one jarringly new experience. Imagine not knowing the masterful balancing of flavours and textures present in an entire country’s cuisine, imagine never experiencing the cascade of savoury sensations as the salty is overrun by the sweet, and in turn counterbalanced by the sour, then overturned by the spicy, itself engulfed in umami, and the whole thing joyously and rioutously repeating itself with each crunchy, slippery, subsequent mouthful.
Now I will confess, it took a long time for me to come around to a lot of things. Like, a lot. When I was a little tacker, I didn’t like a lot of the usual suspects, like cabbage, or brussels sprouts, or broccoli, peas, spinach, chilli. Obviously, I couldn’t stand tea or coffee, or booze. Neither did I like mushrooms, or coriander, or tomatoes, or avocado, or pickles, or soda water. I did like offal, until I put two and two together and figured out what it was. Excepting kidneys, which hung in there because I had loved steak and kidney pie. But eventually the cognitive dissonance collapsed, knowing by then the bodily function of kidneys and experiencing all too clearly what was described by Joyce as ‘a fine tang of faintly scented urine’. But neither did I like things that I probably should have liked, such as apple pie, cauliflower cheese, custard tarts, the skin of a roast chicken, or vanilla slices, or the fat from a roast or a steak, or bacon. There were things I didn’t like because they were perhaps a touch sophisticated for a burgeoning palate, like blue cheese, or vinegar, or mustard.
But a friend of mine, Victoria, whom I respect tremendously lives by the maxim ‘try anything three times, if it didn’t hurt worse the second time’. I may be less tolerant of things that haven’t wowed me the first two times than she is, but it does bear repeating – you really need to try new things, and that includes revisiting old things as well. If I doggedly put all those morsels in my rear-view mirror and stuck only to the limited pool of things I liked first time around, I would be living a much poorer life right now. If I only drank the things I learned to tolerate the flavour of as a teenager, I would have missed out on so, so many new and varied moments. The irregular notes, of sour, pungent, rich, piquant, funky, sharp, hot, tangy or any combination of these and others are the light and colour, texture, punctuation or chords of the experience; you simply can’t omit them without rendering the whole experience infinitely lesser.
I am aware that you can’t magically change your mind about things. You can’t just will yourself to enjoy the taste of overboiled cabbage, or mushy cauliflower. Sometimes it takes an a-ha! moment to really get it. If, like me, you were raised on vegetables that were boiled until bloodless with no salt or seasoning, you may have a lot of trouble finding your eureka moment. But when you start planting yourself as seeds in the gardens of others, having dinner with your friends at their parents’ table, or later with your classmates in their sharehouses, or when you’re invited over to that special person’s house for a meal, you find yourself exposed to wholly new approaches. Ones that may not have even been possible for you to even conceive of with your limited worldview.
Additionally, sometimes, you need to blow the whole thing up and start again. To truly understand the value of a thing, sometimes you need to burn it to the ground and rebuild from first principles. If your concept of broccoli is of brownish soggy mush, banish the memory: it is not the same species as a lovingly stir-fried chilli and garlic broccoli with oyster sauce. The memory of insipid, limp asparagus is as nothing to crisp barbecued asparagus grilled in olive oil with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Watery lumps of fart-smelling cauliflower pales next to a velvetty smooth puree, or even tart shards of turmeric-pickled cauliflower. And the easiest shortcut of all – if you don’t like a thing, try another culture’s version of it. I always hated eggplant, but loved nasu dengaku the first time I tried it, and baba ganoush, and melanzana parmigana. More than once, the unidentified texture I loved in a soup or a curry turned out to be something I thought I hated. Once you have learned a way to love something, it is so much easier to work backwards, separate out the layers of flavour and texture and begin to appreciate it in its simpler form.
Sometimes a thing doesn’t need to be rebuilt though, merely revisited. I was introduced to sauerkraut in the eighties. It did not leave a good impression on me. But revisiting it later made it a welcome addition to almost any meal. The spongy, mealy felafels I had the first time are a far, far cry from the crisp ovoids of happiness I can pick up on Sydney Road these days. The fast-food okonomiyaki I tried at Daimaru when that was a thing in Melbourne Central (look it up, kids!) was absolutely horrid, and the ones I’ve eaten or made since have turned it into one of my favourite meals. The crisp lagers I hated initially, then came to like, then started to dislike again, and then later came back around to (it was a rollercoaster) are received gladly, though they are not so welcome as the dank IPAs I once found unpalatable, or a sour that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
I guess what I’m saying is, don’t let your memories push you around. “But I don’t like x or y!” you may tell yourself. But you may be wrong. Simple as that. You have been before. You may find your come-to-Jesus in the oddest place. Leaving that slice of tomato in the sandwich, or the pickles on the burger, or giving another go to the thing that was never as good as your mum made (or was just never good when your mum made it) might be a revelation. Revisit it. A couple of times. Boil it, mash it, stick it in a stew. Broaden your horizons, and find yourself with endless oceans to sail. Of course, all of this advice can be applied to every other facet of your life as well – apply liberally twice daily for beneficial effects – but if all it does is gets you try that spice you hate, or those veggies you avoid, or some offal, or a funky beer you couldn’t wrap your head around the first time, I still chalk it up as a win.
Except hakarl. Fuck hakarl.