Kitchen matters

Has the time come for me to finally get - gasp - an oven? And might it mean I will now be able to create a signature dish?

My mother felt it, my maid felt it and so did I. The tiled floor in our kitchen felt suddenly, mysteriously, warm.

It started two weeks ago. I had gone to the kitchen sink to get water after waking up and it occurred to me that the floor felt strangely heated.

My maid said that she, too, had noticed it. When my mother came down, she joined the chorus.

We were baffled. It was morning and cool outside. What could possibly explain the heat? (Was there some kind of fire raging underneath? I had visions of the floor exploding.)

Google, of course, had an answer. I read a forum which said there could be a leak in the piping underneath the floor and the water could have collected heat.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

We looked for water but found nothing.

Coincidentally and luckily, the PUB man came to check our water meter that week. He told us there was a leak somewhere in the house because even when all the water points were switched off, the meter was still registering a reading.

A few days later, we woke up to find rivulets running across the kitchen floor.

I have never had a proper, full-sized, stuck-in-the-wall, conventional oven ... It's strange, I know, almost like saying I have never had a washing machine. ''

Water was definitely seeping in from somewhere now.

We called a plumber who told us that, yes, a pipe underneath the kitchen was leaking and it was probably the one carrying hot water to the kitchen (heated floor mystery explained!) .

Problem was, what do we do next? How does one fix a faulty underground pipe? Hack the floor?

Shall we renovate the kitchen, my mother suggested brightly.

My instinctive response was a horrified no. No, no, I don't want to renovate the house, I cried. It's too much of a hassle. Think of the months of construction, the dust, the workers, the noise, and it's going to be expensive too.

But when I calmed down, I thought again.

My house is 40 years old and the kitchen has been renovated just once before, 20 years ago. The cabinets are yellowing and the tiles are chipping. It's not a kitchen to be proud of.

Best of all, if we renovated it, my dream would come true - I would finally have an oven.

And if I had an oven, I might even accomplish something I've never thought I would but which I've secretly wished I could - I might have a signature dish.

While I don't like cooking, I could picture myself baking, Martha Stewart-like in a pretty pastel kitchen, dappled sunlight in the background and all that. With an oven, I could be one of those women who can whip up a cake in a jiffy and it'll be delicious and everyone would love it.

I know it sounds incredible, but I have never had an oven in my life.

I have never had a proper, full-sized, stuck-in-the-wall, conventional oven with multiple tiers that you use to do things such as bake cakes and grill chicken.

It's strange, I know, almost like saying I have never had a washing machine because who doesn't have an oven in Singapore?

It's something I've longed for and dreamt about, but something my mother has stoutly resisted.

When we lived with our grandparents in the 1960s, their house had no oven. In fact, it was only in the 1950s that their part of Singapore had moved from kerosene lamps to electricity.

When my parents built their own house in the 1970s, an oven wasn't part of the plan.

My mother is Japanese and traditional Japanese cooking doesn't involve baking. Instead, they boil, broil, steam, grill and fry. The oven wasn't a standard or necessary piece of kitchen equipment in her mind. Besides, she doesn't like making desserts although she is a good cook.

My father also cooked but he, too, had no use for ovens. His favourite cooking contraption was a nasty- looking cast-iron pressure cooker which he used for Teochew braised pork leg.

It came with multiple switches and valves, including one in the middle that caused the cooker to jiggle, spit and hiss alarmingly on the stove. It was like having a grenade in the kitchen.

One time, it exploded, shooting out the red beans boiling inside. They landed on the ceiling. Even my mother steered clear of the kitchen when my father took it out.

He also had a phobia of appliances that used too much electricity, and in his eyes, that meant an oven.

And so, I never had one.

Cakes and cookies were such a rarity at home they were regarded as treats. If I ever had a hankering for them, I had to buy them. How I envied friends whose mothers baked. I couldn't imagine what it was like to come home to a freshly baked cake sitting on the table.

My granny would steam yellow Chinese sponge cakes made from flour, sugar and eggs. But it wasn't the same. They were too eggy. I yearned for the buttery smell of a an oven-baked cake, the whiff of a tray of raisin cookies.

My parents gave in and bought us a small, portable oven. My sister and I tried baking in it but the cakes never turned out well. The oven ended up in the storeroom.

(When she got married, her kitchen came with a big fat oven and she became a good baker. Every time I visit her, there'll be home-baked cookies waiting for me.)

In time, we got a microwave oven at home, but how does one bake a cake in it?

When I got married, H took pity on me and bought me the biggest portable oven he could find. But it was still not the real thing.

We spent one morning baking cookies but it was tedious because we could put in only one tray of dough into the oven at a time. We ended up with pale-looking cookies that tasted as bad as they looked.

I've thought of buying a proper oven for the kitchen many times, but my mum would have none of it.

What for? Where are you going to put it? You can't just buy an oven and plug it in, she says. You've got to find a place for it and install it properly.

Besides, she adds, if we have an oven, you'll be baking cakes and do we really want to eat all those extra calories?

It's her house, so what can I say.

But now, there was a chance I could get a proper oven, and with that, I could bake the stuff I've been dreaming of.

I might come up with a signature something. Might it be soft and chewy chocolate chip cookies? Banana walnut biscuits? Butter toffee brownies? Pecan pie? Lemon coconut pie? Custard-filled cornbread?

Several plumbers came to take a look at our kitchen.

One said he could knock a hole in the wall behind a cabinet, get to the hot-water pipe and seal it off so water would no longer flow into the kitchen. The hole could be easily patched, he said.

He quoted a reasonable price and my mother said yes. The leak was fixed last Friday.

She didn't mention renovating the kitchen again.

And so, I'm back to where I was. I'm a little disappointed but, oh well, I suppose me and an oven are just not meant to be.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Kitchen matters'. Print Edition | Subscribe