WHENEVER it was raining outside, my mind always went to instant noodles. A bowl of steaming comfort topped with egg and fried shallots, drenched in my favourite savoury soup. When I was a little girl, this meant Chicken Curry or Special Chicken flavour.
Of course, later on, instant noodle brands came up with all kinds of flavours you could ever imagined. But, as always, nothing beats the classics.
It’s all about the signature taste that brings you back to reminisce the old days from the very first sip: to feast on memories, to slurp on nostalgia, to savour a feeling of going back in time.
THERE was a certain period in my life when my mother and I moved in to stay with my mother’s parents. Every evening, after the call for Maghrib prayer, my grandmother would prepare a bowl of instant noodles for my grandfather.
For Grandfather, it was always the Chicken Curry flavour—and he wanted the noodles to be extra soft. His should be topped with egg, fried shallots, boiled mustard greens, and sweet soy sauce, served inside a white Chinese bowl with a red chicken painted on it.
Grandfather always had his bowls of instant noodles exactly like that, every single evening, at the same time. He would be having it in front of the TV set in the living room—while watching the evening news or a soccer match.
Before bringing the spoon to his mouth, he always asked me the exact same question: “You want this? This is delicious. You want this?”
I would shook my head and looked at him as he savoured his instant noodles with gusto, slurping the savoury soup noisily. Sometimes, a splinter of boiled egg yolk were still stuck on his long white beard even long after he finished.
When in very rare occasions Grandmother made me a bowl of instant noodles, she would prepare it the way she prepared it for Grandfather. I didn’t like the mustard greens back then, but I liked the way the too-soft noodles made the soup seemed way thicker, the way they absorbed the full flavour from the seasonings.
No one could prepare the perfect instant noodles for Grandfather but Grandmother. My mother was a good cook, but even she couldn’t emulate Grandmother’s signature bowl of instant noodles. Grandmother also knew the way Grandfather liked his sweet hot tea; the precise thickness of tea and sugar, as well as the precise level of warmth when it should be served.
Grandmother prepared instant noodles for Grandfather every single evening, until one day she fell sick. She passed away a month later.
After Grandmother’s death, Grandfather still had his bowl of instant noodles every evening—the one prepared by my mother. He no longer asked me questions about whether I’d like to have the noodles or not, and I suddenly lost interest in watching him finishing his instant noodles. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I was simply growing up. Maybe the sight of Grandfather eating his instant noodles had stopped to excite me.
But I thought it was because something was missing:
A year after that, Grandfather passed away. As far as I could remember, I had never seen Grandfather served anything for Grandmother.
I AM always curious at the fact that a bowl of instant noodles can develop its own signature taste.
The noodles came in identical packagings, with identical seasonings, and identical instructions on how to prepare and serve them. Nonetheless, I have heard of people lining up in front of certain instant noodle street stalls because ‘the noodle here is so delicious‘.
I thought this would be something Grandfather would understand. Maybe he would line up in front of an instant noodle stall that served one with Grandmother’s style.
In Java, instant noodle stalls can be found almost in every corner of the street. Many stay open until the small hours. One should only look for street stalls carrying the word ‘INTERNET’.
A friend who visited from abroad pointed at those stalls one day, and asked me whether those were street-style internet cafes. I told him that it was a different kind of internet. This INTERNET stands for Indomie-Telur-Kornet (instant noodle, egg, and corned beef). It’s a bowl of comfort food for most Indonesians; as well as for clubbers who roamed the streets hungrily after partying hard, trying to prevent hangovers.
Another friend of mine would enthusiastically vouch for an instant noodle stall in another part of the town. It would take her 45 minutes to get there by car—an hour and a half if there was a traffic jam. But she would brave it all. She said this stall served the most delicious bowl of instant noodles she had ever tasted.
Probably it was the way they prepared the noodle.
About how long they boil it. About whether they stir it or not. About having it really soft or really chewy. About whether they put the seasonings into the pan or into the bowl. The kind of eggs they use. The amount of chilli they put in. On whether they sprinkle fried shallots or not. The brand of the corned beef. On whether they boil the corned beef or serve it right away from the can. On whether they put in green vegetables or not. On whether they grate the cheese before or after the noodle is ready. On whether they add some salt or chicken stocks.
Or maybe, ‘delicious’ has nothing much to do with the taste itself. Maybe it has more to do with memories.
WE moved out from my grandparent’s house into a rented one when I was 10. The house itself was really small. The kitchen was oddly located right in front of the bathroom. But it had a huge backyard.
Seeing it, as a little girl, I imagined a huge swimming pool; but my mother realistically decided to grow peanuts.
I didn’t know why she chose peanuts, but after spending a few hours under the sun in the backyard for a few months, she managed to grow 10-12 rows of peanuts there. I didn’t get my swimming pool, but my mother bought me a huge plastic bucket. On sunny days, she would fill it with cold water. I would soak myself happily; wearing my swimsuit and playing with a yellow rubber duck, while my mother worked on her peanuts.
During harvest time, we always had more than we could consume, and my swimming bucket would be filled with peanuts. My mother would boil several batches of peanuts for hours; I could smell them from the street. We would eat some of them, but ended up giving away most of them to our neighbours. My mother also made peanut cookies and peanut butter, but we kept those for ourselves.
When there were simply too much peanuts to handle, my mother would leave the peanut-filled swimming bucket outside our fence, so anyone could grab some.
However, peanuts were meant for sunny days. For rainy days, we had instant noodles.
My mother always scolded me for forgetting my umbrella—or for losing it. On some wet afternoons, when it rained heavily and I came home with a soaked uniform, my mother would scold me for not having my umbrella, while—at the same time—preparing a bucket of warm water for a bath. Then she would send me to the bathroom and reminded me to wash my hair so I wouldn’t catch a cold.
When I finished, my mother would have prepared my ‘rainy day’ meal on the dining table: a plate of warm rice with a bowl of steaming hot instant noodles; and some eggs—fried with margarin and sweet soy sauce. A glass of sweet hot tea would have been ready on the side. At this stage, my mother would have stopped scolding me about the umbrella. She would tell me the stories of her days; or ask me to tell some stories of my days.
My mother could cook anything from rendang to gulai, from gudeg to siomay, and they were always delicious. But nothing reminded me more of the comfort of coming home than the signature smell of her simple rainy day meal.
A warm plate of rice, a steaming hot instant noodle, egg fried with margarin and sweet soy sauce, and sweet hot tea. That was the best set of meal one could ever have after a long, tiring, and challenging day away from home. It was the smell I came home to—the taste of warmth I came to long for.
For the sake of living a healthier lifestyle, in the past few years, I had drastically reduced my frequency of consuming instant noodles.
However, every time I came home from a long traveling journey, I still treated myself to a bowl of Chicken Curry or Special Chicken, and fried myself an egg in margarin—drizzled with sweet soy sauce.
Because if coming home had a taste, to me, it would taste just like that.