Leftovers spiced with love

My family of four loves its food so it is once in a rare while that we have to serve a mixed batch of "le fait oeuvre".

That's family slang for "leftovers". The faux French pronunciation was bestowed by my mother's older sister decades ago, in a successful bid to get me and my brother to eat dinner without cooking up a fuss.

Leftovers are somewhat sneered at in my home, in part because my late grandmother grew up in the era before electric fridges when "fresh, hot food" meant "healthy, germ-free eatables".

So leftovers have a strange shelf-life in my fridge. If all in our family are at home, cooked food seems to turn invisible the minute it enters the cold zone. Shelves groaning with last night's rice and tubs of soup and curry are ignored in favour of whipping up a new stir-fry or fresh batch of dal (lentils).

I often feel like the lone champion of the leftover, digging doggedly through cooling containers of today's lunch, back to the frozen wastes of yesterday's lunch or dinner. Meanwhile, my father agonisedly brandishes mushrooms and pleads for permission to make me "something fresh" for my "dabba" or lunchbox.

I like carrying a "dabba" or lunchbox and have done so for most of my years in the workforce. It is one way to ensure the fridge is slowly relieved of its burden. And it probably is healthier than eating outside every day.

I began carrying a lunchbox in the years when I lived alone and my family was three far-flung points of light scattered across the map of the world. The lone occupier of a flat, newly sundered from the now married or overseas schoolmates I had roomed with for years, I sought comfort in food. Not the traditional method of stuffing one's face with sweet things but in meticulously packing lunchboxes bento-style for myself. Arrange cheese strips in a smiley-face with tomato eyes and even a humble three-ingredient sandwich can remind the eater that she is loved and valued.

Then my parents moved in and bento box lunches for three became too much to handle. I tried cooking regular meals for them instead, glorious one-pot concoctions of soup or stew. These became leftovers that remained in the fridge for days as I slowly masticated my way through the container.

A few months in, I realised that what my parents wanted was to nurture me again, to feed me with the dal and rice and roti I had not grown up eating, since I left for Singapore before turning 16.

Swallowing my reluctance, I turned the kitchen over to them and they served and continue to serve delicacies from North Indian food to Thai curry made from hand-ground spices.

Now, even when my parents travel, they make large batches of easily frozen or stored food, in order to ensure my brother and I do not starve in their absence.

In other words, they decide leftovers are a good thing as long as they don't have to eat them.

Ignoring their children's combined 23 years of self-sufficiency, they leave our Arctic-temperature fridge groaning with enough to feed an army of locusts. We siblings have heroically chomped our way through mutton curry, dal and two types of vegetables for a week, just barely managing to clear the fridge before our parents' return.

Their first suspicious comment usually is: "What have you kids been eating? The fridge is bare!"

The last time we cooked and filled the fridge before their return, my parents went about moping that they "had nothing to do" and their "territory" had been usurped.

They feed me and my brother in the abundance of their affection and therefore leftovers are a source of annoyance and even shame. My father pouts if the wok containing dinner is not mopped clean by the end of the meal or insists on listing the low-calorie ingredients in the giant vat of soup he has served.

Leftovers or "loved oeuvres", the food in the fridge is nourishment spiced with deep affection and consumed with a hint of loving resignation.

"I'll do better next time at estimating your tastes and appetites," each covered container says to me.

"Never mind, there is always the lunchbox," is my consoling reply, only to be met with: "Oh, I should have doubled the recipe so you could take more and share it with your friends."


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