How do we know things?
I don’t mean knowledge or facts. I’m not talking about words, labels or content.
I’m talking about perception. How do we perceive the world, at a level that’s most basic and raw? Without the steady stream of thought that continually tries to make sense of our perceptions. Or even ourselves.
I’m talking about the canvas, before we slather it with words and thoughts and worries and musings. A canvas that is ever changing, moment to moment, steeped in the restless world we find ourselves in.
Take this very moment. You’re reading words on a screen. Your brain is effortlessly crunching all those nouns, verbs, and conjunctions: framing them against your accumulated bank of knowledge, experience and attitudes.
But on another level, writing is just sticks and swirls.
Simultaneously, it’s also possible to notice the edges of the phone or tablet you’re seeing them on, to feel its weight, or the resistance of the chair or cushion underneath you. Or the hum of traffic, the sounds from the street, or the noise in your own home.
When it comes to eating, we don’t always focus all our attention on the food itself. Maybe we’re chatting with someone, reading an article, watching a video, or just mulling things over in our heads. We may have some sense of the food, but may not necessarily pick up on all its details.
And that’s all okay: we don’t always have to be ‘at one’ with our food.
But there are times when it can just be joyful to give food some proper attention, allowing ourselves to be rapt by the multi-sensory experience that it can offer. Especially when it’s the food itself that jolts us out of our trance, throwing a proverbial bucket of iced water over our heads, and demanding our attention.
“Here I am!” it hollers, “Look at me. Smell. Taste. Feel..”
When it comes to knowing what a dish of food is like, its sound is something I rarely consider. Yes, there might be specific moments when I’m acutely aware of food noise. Like when munching on popcorn in the cinema, trying to stifle the inevitable antisocial CRUNCH! with some slow-motion, self-conscious, comically-bovine chewing.
Perhaps you, like me, are already a fully paid-up member of the Noisy Eating Society, something my family more than occasionally remind me about, especially if I’m chomping on corn-on-the-cob or slurping down chicken soup.
But beyond these loud, obnoxious noises, sound also forms part of the very experience of eating in more subtle ways too – and it was a dish of nasi lemak at Mei Mei that really got me thinking about this.
Mei Mei is a highly-acclaimed restaurant counter in Borough Market; it’s modelled on the kopitiam coffee shops of Singapore, where chef-founder Elizabeth Haigh was born and grew up. Lying right beneath the railway tracks, it nestles under the bridge like a benign troll, as though ready to surprise the unwary with its superlative bowls of Singaporean specials.
Take nasi lemak for instance, a renown Malay dish that’s customarily eaten for breakfast. It’s a dish that juxtaposes an enticing variety of elements onto a single plate, and it’s one that presents a dilemma from the off: where to start? There’s rice steamed in coconut milk, a dollop of fiery sambal, a sprinkling of salted peanuts, and then a fried medley of chicken, egg and anchovies.
After much umming and ahhing, head-scratching and general indecision, I eventually go for… a peanut. The pause whilst working all this out has already built a kind of suspense, which only serves to magnify my attention onto the dish.
Once the peanut passes through my lips, I gently roll it between my molars until it lands in the requisite position. I press down carefully, sensing its resistance as I go, the slightest hint of softness. And then..
CRUNCH! – comes the sound as it’s bisected into two salty nuggets, each one releasing its earthy flavour before tumbling down my gullet.
Then I approach one of the dried anchovies, as tentative as if it were still alive and might dart off the plate if I’m not careful. And into my mouth it pops.
SNAP!.. It’s certainly crunchy, but this one’s more a brittle higher-pitched sound, like a cymbal compared with the peanut’s more mellow, rounded tabla.
The crunch of the cucumber, on the other hand, is softer, more yielding perhaps, creating a refreshing flurry of water – like the delicate shimmer of a tambourine that tails off into a gentle diminuendo.
Then there’s the fried chicken, whose crisp, feather-light shell encases melting meat inside, made tender by sweet, salty brine. The two contrasting textures combine sounds of an altogether more complex instrument.
Nasi lemak derives from the Malay for ‘fatty rice’, and its very name draws our attention to the creaminess of the rich coconut milk used in the steaming of the rice. Even though the sound of eating rice is less prominent here, I’m still sensing it somehow. That’s perhaps less to do with any actual noise emanating from it, and more about the tactile interplay between flesh and food – one that curiously reminds me of the playing of a musical instrument.
Each grain of rice remains perfectly discernible, and there is a particular joy in the sensation of them brushing against each other, over and around your tongue. As I start to bite, it’s like a guitar chord, each grain a string. I pluck out arpeggios from low to high and back to low, the combined notes resonating harmonically inside my mouth.
Then come the silent notes, the rests in between the more extravert crotchets and quavers. For as so often in music – from Beethoven’s 3rd to The Beatles’ Day In The Life – it’s the moments of stillness where the greatest drama lies.
But even in the quiet hushed tones of the thick sambal paste, I find myself blasted by flavour that’s both loud and exuberant: lemongrass, lime, tamarind, chilli and fermented shrimp. The fried egg meanwhile offers up theatre of a different sort – rupturing yolks spilling out luminous orange lava over the gentle rice slopes.
Yet these silent notes only serve to emphasise the sonic drama of the rest. For after the lull, it’s back again with another crotchet of peanut. CRUNCH! A quaver of anchovy. SNAP! A chord of rice. STRUM! Then silence descends again as I rejoice in dipping some egg into that punchy sambal.
Truth be told, there’s never really any silence. Life is not silent. Beyond the plate there’s always a soundtrack of sorts playing in the background.
A ladle clangs periodically as the kaya curd is stirred on the stove throughout the morning. There’s the gentle, rolling sizzle of chicken frying in pans, punctuated by the odd crackle and bubble, as if by a fireside or waterfall. A cacophony of percussion rises from knives chopping, whisks whirring, and pots clanging. And beyond that, the occasional rumble of bass drum as trains run rhythmically overhead.
The more I pay attention to these sounds, the more it’s like being immersed in some kind of impromptu orchestra, with instruments around me and inside me even as I eat.
Accompanying all this music, chefs dance and waltz rhythmically around the kitchen island, their warm chatter between each other and the guests like a chorus of accompanying sopranos and baritones.
It’s tempting to cast Elizabeth as conductor-in-chief. But watching all morning how she’s also warmly greeting the customers, serving them cups of kopi or sweet teh tarik, then flitting around the kitchen to chop some chicken, stir the curd, or plate some cake – it’s clear that she also pitches in with some lead guitar, drums and vocals too. This band feels very cohesive and egalitarian.
It’s all a reminder that food isn’t just about flavour, and restaurants aren’t only about food. And of course you know that already – it’s a wonderful thing to be stirred again by such food music, and to be so utterly entranced by its glorious beat.
If you aren’t able to visit Mei Mei, you can still try their wonderful nasi lemak at home as a meal kit, along with various other products they’re now selling online, including sambal, kaya curd, and Singaporean curry powder. Meanwhile for some more reflections on mindfulness and food, feel free to check out my piece, Meat ‘n Veg at Rochelle Canteen.
Mei Mei London