Chicken rice. A dish served with an array of flavorful condiments, succulent chicken, and steaming fragrant rice.
This dish was my ride or die, especially when my grandmother prepared it. Going over to my cousin's house to watch her prepare it during a family gathering was my favorite part of the dinner, besides getting to taste it of course.
With each deliberate slice of the chicken, she carved out the best parts to serve. With each minute that passed by, she boiled the rice to continue to enhance the flavor. With each scoop of rice and chicken onto our plates, she laid out the foundation of our family meal.
As we hungrily stared at the plate, we simultaneously anxiously waited our turn to say "chi fan" to the adults. The faster we got through that, the faster we got to our meal. Delving in, at last, we tore into each slice of the chicken, not waiting to savor it before moving onto the rice, which we rapidly shoveled into our greedy mouths. That was how the dinner would go; scoop, shovel, repeat. After finally quenching our thirst for the bursts of flavors, we would retire to the living room.
This process repeated every gathering until my family left our cousins, our aunts, our uncles, to move to Boston that year. Before we left, my grandmother handed down the recipe of her sacred chicken rice to my mom, through word of mouth of course.
In Boston, chicken rice was our meal every other Sunday. As my mom carefully prepared the dish, I perched myself onto the nearest surface, anxiously waiting not only for dinner to arrive but also waiting for her to deem me worthy to pass down the recipe, as her mother did for her. My mother's chicken rice was different though, more subtle notes of flavor and overall a softer tone. All I can say was that it was different.
And then it happened.
That rare moment where the rice gets burned, the chicken gets tough, and the flavors become dull. That moment started with the death of my grandfather, while we were still in Boston. Similar to the dish, the first thing you did was to check up on it, even though it's too late to unburn the rice or to soften the chicken.
When we arrived back in Brunei, my grandmother was completely silent and unmoving. The only indication that she was alive was the salty drops that leaked from her eyes during the funeral, as she sat, still as a statue in her chair. At home, she would simply aimlessly drift like a ghost through each room, attempting to ignore the cries from her stomach and heart.
She would not eat, much less cook. One night, weeks after my grandfather's death, as she sat at the dining table, stationary and speechless, my mother and aunts decided it was enough. They attempted to force feed her some tofu as they cooed and coddled her. As my cousins, brother and I watched on in shock, it was at that moment that we knew nothing was going to be the same.
As a 9-year-old at the time, I had no clue on what mental health issues were. I could not wrap my mind on the new word introduced to me; depression. Depression was an interesting thing, it seemed to be like mold, overtaking everything it came across. Despite my family's best attempts, my grandmother continued to wander through her life in a haze, refusing to see people outside of family and refusing to do anything that required any of her previous skills.
During these dark times, chicken rice was no longer something we ate regularly. When we did, it tasted off. The sauce was a little bit too bitter, the rice a little too hard. Perhaps we could not eat it because of the memories attached to this particular dish.
As time passed on, my grandmother slowly started to recover, though nowhere near her previous self. Where she was once generous, she was now stingy. Where she was once calm, she was now anxious. We had to learn how to adjust with her. She insisted that her cooking wouldn't taste the same and refused to cook her chicken rice.
My mother was now the new person the recipe was passed down to, and although it was still my favorite dish, it would never be the same. I yearned for the day where I can have my grandmother's chicken rice again, but more importantly to see the smile return to her face as she prepared the dish.
To this day, I am still waiting for my grandmother's chicken rice.