Friday, December 08, 2006

Childhood comfort foods: Tea

I know. Tea isn't a food. But I plan to make this a series (like Cats In My Life, which unfortunately I've never expanded beyond Whiskey, the sweetest cat ever to walk this wicked earth) and "Childhood comfort foods and drinks and anything else that can be tasted" is just so... prosaic?

So. Tea. The story is, this morning I was jauntily walking to breakfast with my colleague when The Unthinkable happened. You know it's not really your day when you can't even get as far as the office door without bleeding. I opened the door without noticing that my foot, inadequately protected by a strappy sandal, was in the way. I actually heard a disgusting "sqqqsshhhhssss" sound as tempered glass and metal sliced through toe flesh. And yet somehow I still thought I could walk to breakfast and deal with the "scratch" later. Until I looked down and noticed the blood oozing. Then, as I walked to the bathroom to rinse it, really oozing.

I turned around and walked back to my cubicle. If that's what happened when I was just walking around indoors, who knows what I might get up to on a road with real traffic? My kind colleague went down to buy our breakfast since our attempt to walk out for food got aborted.

(Yes, this is about tea. I'll get to it soon enough.)

One and a half bungkus of nasi lemak later, with the toe still extremely tender and bleeding, I went to the pantry cupboard, took out a teabag and made myself a cup of tea.

And lifted the steaming mug to my lips. I happened to breathe in just then, and as I smelled the bitter scent, I paused.

The toe still hurt, but I suddenly felt better.


When I was growing up, most of my days were spent at my nanny's house. Before I was old enough for the formal education system to claim me, those days were bliss, mostly spent playing with either Poh-poh, Auntie (when she wasn't busy with housework or cooking) or one of my older "siblings" from the Lim family. Or sleeping. Or watching TV. Or sleeping.

Somehow, even when I was too little to understand much else, I knew that 4pm every day was a special time: teatime.

It was a ritual that now, on those rare occasions when I'm with the Lims at teatime, I miss participating in regularly. From boiling the water in the whistling kettle to scooping just the right amount of tea leaves into the strainer in the green enamel jug, it all screams "home": not home the place, but home, that time in childhood when I was secure and happy. To this day, I find cream crackers dry and tasteless but still enjoy eating them. The only reason I can think of is that teatime always involved cream crackers and butter, not just tea. And tea was always with real milk ("the kind you can pour," I thought as a child, "not the powdered kind.") and lacings of sugar, before Auntie sternly told me off for putting my dental health at risk.

Ah... tea. One whiff of it can bring back so much in faded photographic colour. And take my mind off the pain of a deeply cut toe.

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