On food criticism

When I was 12, I developed a hankering for potato dauphinoise.

A newcomer to Australia’s dining world from a childhood of homemade wontons and breakfast laksa, I was convinced there must be a “Western food” culture beyond rubbery aeroplane steaks and my mother’s post-ballet bolognaise, something like what I saw on the plates of smiling blonde children in television advertisements, dished out with gingham oven mitts.

My mother hated cooking. Desperate to avoid another meal featuring depressive iceberg lettuce, I decided to step in, with root vegetables.

I had spent my early years watching my Hokkien nanny squeeze fresh coconut milk through calico and scale pomfret with a cleaver. I had no idea how to begin.

Wandering through a Perth supermarket, I picked ingredients I assumed must feature: milk, margarine (no one wanted saturated fat in the early 90s), Kraft Singles (the Kuala Lumpur of my childhood didn’t have a flourishing cheese industry), potatoes.

The result of all these ingredients tossed into a pan - the powdery-edged potatoes replete with raw, crunchy centre, swimming in a shallow soup-dish lake of man-made oil-topped milk, the gobs of melted plastic-cheese - was unequivocally, unremittingly vile.

I served it to a table of encouraging aunties, who responded with exclamations of joy. “Oh, aren’t you clever? So creamy!” “Doesn’t that look delicious? Yum, yum!” They ate the lot.

Thrilled with such a reception, I made it again when family friends came to visit, again for a pre-sleepover supper, again for mum and dad’s anniversary dinner. Each time, it was met with great aplomb. It became my signature dish.

It took a year for me to realise how truly disgusting my concoction was. But when I did, I was deeply, soul-crushingly ashamed, horrified at the suffering I’d inflicted, and smoulderingly angry at all the supportive relatives who’d lied to me.

South Africa’s food culture has, for decades, been the victim of unwitting sabotage.

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