I was feeling melancholic yesterday, remembering all the past Christmasses with friends and family. I thought of last year's indulgent lunch with C and my cousins. Yesterday, Fourth sister C called me from Heathrow airport while waiting to board the plane that will take her home to KL where the household would be frantically helping third sister to fulfil her holiday orders and also put together something celebratory for the children and extended family. I looked through my blog archives and remember all the friends left behind, the so many delicious meals shared with them and above all, the companionship, the part after the meal when we kick back and talk and laugh, and not worry about cleaning up.
I remembered my very first Christmas. Growing up in a non-Christian household meant we had no memories of Christmas, the trend for turkeys, decorated trees etc only took off in the last 20 years. Anyway, my first time, it was in December of 1985, ten days away from Christmas and I was 16 years old. I arrived in High Barnet, London with my maternal step-grandmother to join my cousins and her children who were studying there. Everything was so new, the air so cold and crispy, waking up from an afternoon nap to find total darkness outside, pushing a loaded trolley with much difficulty around the Sainsbury carpark, going to the elderly couple's house down the road for "drinks" and feeling awkward and stiff. It snowed that winter, but not on Christmas day itself. The first two days we played in the snow, I remember my male cousins stripping down to their shorts in the snow in a big display of bravado, also the makeshift sleds we fashioned to slide down the little slope behind the house. I remember walking to Barnet high street to buy malt bread from the bakery that doesn't exist anymore- it was small, dense, black and sticky, we sliced it thickly and ate it with cold butter. I was introduced to thick country style loaves, lemon curd and marmalade, and on the breakfast table we had every kind of cereal advertised on television. Speaking of the telly, it showed movies non-stop; even until my last year in England I never tired of the repeated oldies and black and white movies shown on Channel 4.
When the snow melted I slipped and fell on the muddy wet street often, and when we walked to the tube station my short legs could never be able to keep up with my taller cousins and uncles. My uncle took us shopping, I bought a Benetton sweater, later I would wash it and hang it to dry, which made the sweater stretched to twice as long! We made mince pies one day, and on another day my grandmother cooked spiced chicken and potatoes as stuffing for curry puffs, with so many hands around it was done quickly and efficiently. No matter how many racks of pork ribs (or roast chicken, lamb chops or any meat really) we cooked it was never enough, we girls learnt to eat fast in order to keep apace with the boys. On Christmas day itself my grandmother invited another set of extended cousins (they lived next door) over for dinner, I remember there was a lot of food, of course, the highlight was a roast goose, or maybe there were two. We pulled crackers, set the pudding alight, exchanged presents and watched more telly.
Fast forward to 23 years later. I am back again in foreign land, this time with our small family. For V, this would also be the first Christmas that she would probably remember. I tried to tell her about baby Jesus but she was more distracted by the carols they teach in school, and by the glittering decorations along the streets. She was excited when we put up the tree, and even more excited when she woke up to find that presents had appeared at the bottom of the tree while she slept. For days she kept asking to open the presents.
To reconcile with our homesickness, I decided to cook laksa. The Asian groceries here do not stock Prima Taste laksa mix. I pick them up when I am in London or ask friends to bring them over from Singapore. To make it more tasty I cooked the toppings (chicken breast meat, langoustines, baby corn, brocolli) in the water before adding some lemon grass and the contents of the laksa mix sachets- usually I use half the coconut mix and double the spice paste. For noodles I did the Malaysian thing and used thin beehoon, they are perfect for soaking up the rich, spicy gravy.
The langoustines were very good-looking but not as tasty as fresh shrimps. Unfortunately I woke up too late on Christmas eve so by the time I got to the market they had run out of uncooked shrimps or prawns, save for the giant prawns which I can never bring myself to fork money over for, being over 60 euros per kilo. Still, when cooked for the briefest moment, 2-3 minutes for big ones like these, the flesh do not get too mushy and the shells make the soup very tasty. Husband enjoyed the laksa very much, declaring it better than foie gras.
Last night I had a sudden hankering for sago gula melaka. I remember my young uncle, younger than me by 2 years, who loved sago gula melaka. One year, he made sago gula melaka for Christmas, the big Pyrex bowl of the wobbly sago sitting next to his older sister's English trifle, that was the year we had roast turkey and I made fried wontons, I would have been about 20 years old then. We've lost touch with this uncle, he should still be living in England, CL, if you are reading this we all miss you very much.
I love sago too but I refrained from buying some because I wanted to use the glutinous rice sitting in the pantry. The Thai grown rice was beautifully perfumed. It was also a doddle to cook, just soak overnight and steam dry for 30 minutes. I added some coconut cream to the rice and cooked it for a further 5 minutes but next time I would stir the santan into the rice instead.
After our coconutty lunch that reminded us happily of home, we sat down to help V open her presents. She didn't eat laksa- we fed her beehoon with the topping and clear soup- and she didn't like the glutinous rice dessert either, but she had her fill of black cherries and super-sweet satsumas and later, the presents made her so happy she forgot to ask for dinner. It was a very good day for her and for that we are very thankful for.