New Year’s Eve is a good time to ponder the past, make a resolution or two and reflect on some important truths. My New Year’s Eve was spent at the bustling and colourful markets in Vanuatu buying local crabs. This was an act of bravery which I hope will herald the emergence of a new courageous chef in my kitchen in 2016.
I am usually a very cautious cook. I love the familiar and I hate accidents. I do, however, adore fresh food markets and the one in Port Vila is marvellous. The stalls are laden with glistening vegetables, huge papayas, coconuts, miniature mangoes, gleaming eggplants, scarlet chillies, fragrant herbs, sharp small limes, sugary pineapples and every type of yam piled into neatly woven leaf baskets. There are also net bags of sea snails and bundles of live crabs waving their pincers about angrily.
In this exotic place I suddenly lose my reserve and shop with abandon. Before you know it, I am loaded down with spring onions, chillies, eggplants, tomatoes, bunches of herbs, bags of marble sized limes, Vanuatu cabbage and a few mangoes. I pick up a sunny coloured papaya and a couple of pineapples. The women stall holders smile at my eagerness.
Spurred on by their warmth I decide to invest in a bag of sea snails. I love talking to these gentle, friendly women and a few of them gather around to offer advice about how to prepare my odd purchase. The snails are alive and squirmy and the women advise me to boil them for about fifteen minutes. A little voice inside me warns against this craziness but I buy one bag for about $3.00. Then I check out the crabs. Now to be honest, I have already had a conversation with Layana our young housekeeper who has assured me that she is fine with cooking these crabs.
I leave the market burdened with five bundles of live crabs and I am ready to embark on a frenzy of adventurous cooking. My first daring act is to call Layana to check about ingredients and confirm her arrival at our rented house at 5pm. There is something quite lovely about standing in a supermarket in a foreign country and talking on the phone to a female friend about cooking supper.
Layana arrives on time and is taken (by our two small grandchildren) to view the crabs which are residing in the bath tub. She is completely unperturbed and calmly transfers them to the kitchen sink for preparation. Sadly the sea snails have closed up as tight as clams and have to be discarded (much to the relief of many faint hearts in the house).
So I spend my New Year’s Eve cooking with a woman almost half my age and from a completely different culture. We fall into an easy rhythm of chatter and chopping. I find out about her family – the difficulties of leaving her children on another island, the dominance of her father, the hardship and joy of marriage. She asks about my life in Australia and my Asian heritage and we find ourselves laughing and sighing at similar things.
As Layana makes a delicious coconut curry to flavour the crabs and I create a dish of eggplants, tomatoes and chillies, I remember the sound of women making food together in my grandmother’s kitchen. How much wisdom, humour and truth is mixed and ladled, simmered and spiced when women share stories and utensils. Cooking dinner with Layana is the perfect New Year’s Eve activity… it makes me brave in the kitchen, it reminds me that women’s talk transcends culture, age and status and it takes me back to a long ago place in a Malaysian home where food and conversation danced together among the pots and pans.
© Anita Patel, 2016