When I travel, my memories always attach to food I’ve eaten along the way. I distinctly recall the vast array of dishes I tried on my first trip to the US when I was in primary school, and whenever I see those dishes elsewhere those early travel memories come flooding back. Churros at Disneyland, hush puppies somewhere in Texas, clam chowder in a bread bowl in San Fransisco.
The first time I went to New Zealand I had lamb that I have never been able to beat, even with my own efforts. I can still taste the steak I had in a tiny restaurant in Port Villa, and the degustation my husband and I had at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania on our honeymoon.
For reasons I can’t quite explain, my brain has decided to catalogue my memories according to food eaten at or near a place in time. The biscuits I ate in hospital after my son was born (so many melting moments were consumed that fortnight) are an apt example of how my memory is organised like a menu, even for recollections beyond travel and adventure.
Inevitably I find myself thinking about food a lot. I am often thinking about what to have for my next meal before I’ve finished the current one. Such is my culinary obsession that I was literally halfway through lunch in Seminyak (Bali) this week, when I was overcome by the need to google the menu for our dinner venue. I was annihilating a delicious steak while choosing the burger I was going to devour in a few hours time. Luckily in Bali, the portions are a good size – enough to fill you up without making you feel stuffed – and hiking around Seminyak in the wet season is quite the appetite builder!
While in Bali I had the great fortune of eating so many wonderful Indonesian dishes; some I was familiar with and others I had never come across before. It was in a wonderful restaurant in Ubud, while taking shelter from the rain and humidity, that I randomly pointed to a dish on the menu that had all the hallmarks of deliciousness but no clear explanation of what the heck it actually was. ‘Lunch time lucky dip’ has always been a favourite game of mine, where the chances of discovering a gem are so very real, but the dance is fraught with pitfalls and the looming spectre of food regret.
Nevertheless, I took the plunge and ordered Soto Ayam.
OMG. I have been craving this bowl of insane glory ever since! Soto Ayam is literally chicken soup, but holy bat balls it is a next level soup. Beef pho is my all time favourite soup and this Balinese bad boy has come pretty damn close to knocking pho off its pedestal. I’ve linked a recipe here that looks like it closely resembles what I had in Ubud, with its poached chicken, herbs and noodles, boiled eggs and coconut broth, and I highly recommend giving this dish a try if you see it out in the world.
Now I’m fighting off batch of flu germs thanks to sleep deprivation and many hours in the petri dishes commonly known as ‘aeroplanes’, I think I’ll make an attempt at cooking some Soto Ayam tomorrow. It won’t ever be as good as the bowl I had in Ubud, just like no churro will never be as good as the first time I had one in California, but that’s not the point, is it?
You can’t recreate memories. You can try, but inevitably they are unattainable, elusive wisps of past time that will always be just out of reach. You can revisit them though, by finding the little anchors that hold them in place in your mind. I won’t ever have a clam chowder experience like the one I had with my parents in San Fransisco, but every time I have chowder, or see chowder, or smell chowder, I am instantly transported to that time on that holiday. I’m so very looking forward to making Soto Ayam, not because I think I can recreate that moment on our first family trip overseas, but because that little bowl of goodness will ignite an eruption of memories I will cherish for years to come.
Yours in soup,