Taste is the cornerstone of our earliest memory – after all, we were exposed to our appetite long before any sensory experiences. As a child, no matter how reluctant I felt toward every meal, I would still give in and consume all the chocolate in the fridge when my family wasn’t around, gleefully accepting the consequences.
I am not far off from my ten-year-old self; I still crave Hong Kong style hotdogs and fried drumsticks – a craving not so much about taste as it is about childhood memories. The objects of the craving, however, are hard to come by these days.
There is some degree of general consensus on what good food is, but there is also what I dubbed “personal taste”, such as my obsession with cakes. I’ve discovered only recently that this obsession of mine outdoes a lot of people. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always taken for granted cakes as a substitution for proper meals, when, in fact, most people would consider them a bit of a luxurious snack.
When I think about this obsession, it mostly boils down to another obsession – in childhood, with Hong Kong style cakes (though in Chinese we call them “western pastries”). For the longest time, my staple breakfast consisted of a slice of cake and a glass of milk.
That said, takeaway cakes from bakeries have nothing on dine-in cakes enjoyed in cha chaan tengs. Old-school cha chaan tengs are characterised by their outdoor stalls selling all kinds of baked goods; Cantonese pastries used to be simple and clumsy – the kind of stuff happiness was made of. Rows upon rows of homemade cakes give a window back to my childhood: my dad’s hand too big for my miniature hand to hold onto as we dashed into the cha chaan teng, where he ordered a cake for me.
Here I am in one of those vanishing, old-school estate cha chaan tengs. I order two slices of cake and a milk tea.
“Please enjoy,” the server says. She’s around my mum’s age.
I feel slightly embarrassed by her formality. 80’s Cantonese pop songs are playing in the background, as though to remind me that this isn’t a fine-dining restaurant. I admire the server’s seriousness all the more.
“She’s from the older generation,” I muse.
Since when did we draw this demarcation between generations? Everything on the other side seems so distant and scarce. I take a bite of the cherry cake, a familiar warmth courses through me. The cake melts in my mouth, as does the air on the other side of the divide.
What else is on the other side? The loud hum of airplanes, the slowness of rotary dials – and this piece of cake, made of cheap lard. Everything seems so dated, and yet, so warm.
Indeed, that which is unforgettable has nothing to do with taste.
“Please come back soon,” the server says I get the bill.