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.
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