Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Foods For Thought

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

It's been a tough couple of weeks here. The meniscus in my left knee got torn in a fall and some very effective antibiotics wiped out my gut bacteria meaning lots of loo visits... which the knee wasn't very happy about.

But all's returning to normal now and I'm looking forward to lunch with friends visiting Singapore next week. Which leads to today's question: Should I introduce these nice people (likely jet lagged and stressed from traveling halfway across the world) to the most exciting foods I know... or should we go for something simple and comforting that they're more likely to enjoy--even if it doesn't leave as striking a first impression?

Because when I was under the weather, I found I couldn't read anything challenging. You'd think having a bad knee or iffy gut has nothing to do with reading challenging books, but I'll tell you it does! There are some books in my past--good books--but books I can barely think about, let alone pick up right now...

Like one that reminds of me a fish head curry-- a great delicacy and connoisseurs love the eyeballs and the fish lips especially.  

I love it too--you have to taste that gravy before you judge it--and the okra and eggplant in there are delicious. 

But encountering it for the first time reminds me of reading I'm Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid for the first time. It's especially unnerving because all the parts are familiar, from the old school to the old parents to the old security guard...

Just as you're familiar with fish of course, and with tomatoes and curry with a little spice... and if you eat fish fillets why not fish heads... but when it's all coming at you at once and your host does you the honour of dolloping the eyeball on your plate of rice it can be a bit much.

Fish head curry is delicious, I promise you. Just like it's a powerful book, but maybe not the best choice if you're not feeling well. Just remember it's all fish (spoiler: kind of like how it's all Jake).

Or there's chilli crab--another Singapore speciality that I've always found troubling because the crabs need to be kept alive until they're cooked, meaning you see the poor creatures in tanks waiting to be chosen and hauled to their deaths. 

And yes, unless you're vegan everything you eat was once alive... but you don't usually have to look them in the eye and try to figure out if they'd rather be put out of their misery quickly or left to live a little longer-- the book this reminds me of is Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door

That's a book that stays with you. That's the mark of a great story isn't it? That it sticks in your mind for ages after and, just to make it worse, it's supposed to be based on a true story. 

Between the two, I'd say chilli crab is the less traumatic experience. And it's truly delicious too, only to really enjoy it you've got to get involved and be willing to dig in deep and get dirty (same with reading) to get the full experience.

And then there's BBQ Sambal Stingray that reminds me of my first reading of The Orton Diaries.

Traditionally the stingray is served barbecued, smeared with sambal chilli sauce and often served with chinchalok (sauce made of fermented shrimp). 

My first experience of reading Joe Orton's diaries was flavourful, exciting and coloured everything I took in for ages. Sambal stingray is a similar experience. The taste is sensational and with every mouthful you experience anew the sensation of sliding the succulent, firm flesh off the ribs of cartilage holding it together. You keep thinking you're done--but you keep getting pulled back for just one more taste. 

These are all delicious food experiences. But when I was under the weather, I couldn't face any of these books or foods. I needed comfort eats just like I needed comfort reads. 

Confession: I'm still taking it easy and the books by my bed are currently Elizabeth Peters, Ann B Ross, Lee Harris, Vivien Chien... writers who nurture me the same way as my comfort food--Economy Rice--does. 

With these books/ dishes you know that what you get will be 'same though different' and 'different but the same'; tasty and nourishing without being too challenging. Costing between $3 and $5, they won't sear your taste buds or take up too much brain space.

Though these are the kind of dishes I found boring when I was growing up (and someone else was cooking) I appreciate them now!

Okay-- Jeff Siger's At Any Cost is on the pile too because though that's tasty and different, it's a safe 'risk' because I trust him as a writer; kind of like I'll risk the occasional laksa or roast meat rice from a familiar stall even when I'm being cautious.

Returning to a stall you know is like returning to a series you love--and like meeting with old friends to find out what's been happening in their lives. 

Which can be the best part of both eating and reading together!

Happy eating and reading everyone!



  1. Ovidia, I love this. Books as dishes — perfect!

  2. So sorry to hear about your knee...and all that precipitated. But your indomitable spirit carried the day with those luscious dishes you described. Fish heads (including eyeballs) are also a treasured portion in Greece, along with other surprising sea creatures...and selected parts of the anatomy of certain land animals. I'll just have to find a way to replicate your sauces without being labeled a heretic by adherents to the Lemon and Olive Oil above all else crowd. I also agree with Ruth on your perfect pairing of books to dishes.

    Needless to say, I'm deeply honored to have "At An Cost" included in your smorgasbord, though describing anything having to do with me as a " safe risk" might just ruin my reputation.:) Feel better soon, dear Ovidia.

    1. Sorry about the reputation risk Jeff--but you're one of my (few) auto-buys!

  3. Though my aging tummy precludes all those splendid culinary treats, I do admire the complexity and the luscious look of the dishes. As a member of a family with serous knee issues, I deeply sympathize with your situation. Do your PT and your exercises. Sending you warmest wishes for a speedy and complete recovery! AA

  4. Thank you very much Annamaria, and I'm going for pilates (it helps!) in a bit!