Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ser-vivor, Hospital Food

I’ll tell you now … I hate hospitals. I hate doctors. I hate anything associated with the antiseptic smells, the white or pasty pastels shades of their uniforms, the general malaise of physical illness, emotional upheaval and the smell of fear and despair in the air.

True, occasionally a hospital can be the venue of joy when a new life opens its eyes to gaze at the bright lights beckoning it forth into our world. But on the whole, hospitals mean death, sickness and despair to me. Suffice to say I hate them and I try never to step foot in them.

It’s not really a phobia. More an intense dislike bordering on mild hatred. This bias extends to those who work in that profession too. An elderly client once harangued another doctor to set me up with “some nice young doctor”. The look of utter horror on my face followed by a sawing motion over the wrist convinced her that that would be a very bad idea. By the same token, I hate dentists too. I’m not sure if it is the smell, the bland, soul-seeping lack of colour, or the totally sterile and cold environment that every atom of my body, mind and soul rages against.

I know it is terribly prejudiced and quite possibly asinine of me to harbour such disdain but hey, I never claimed to be absolutely rational or reasonable.

Which is why it is so ironic that I actually spend a lot of time in hospitals and in the company of doctors. I swear the gods have it in for me. In both my professional and personal life, I seem to be surrounded by doctors. I’m not quite sure how that happened since I try to avoid them like the plague. In fact, one of my first real jobs was in the medical conventions business. Which meant I spent a lot of time not only in the company of doctors but also in hospitals. Worse, I had to go for bi-weekly meetings in a hospital where the only way to the venue was via the pathology department. The gods have a bloody evil sense of humour.

Besides being incarcerated in a hospital bed when I am ill, I have done many odd and unusual things in hospitals. I’ve taught dance in a hospital. I’ve painted a mural on a hospital wall. I’ve delivered food to the wards. I’ve organised workshops and seminars in hospitals. I’ve also rehearsed in a hospital at 11pm with 3 other insane dancers before. And recently I attended a seafood feast in a hospital.

You know hospital food is truly horrendous. I always believed it was a diabolical plot by the hospitals to ensure you will leave as soon as possible to escape the food so they can free up the bed for other victims. But if you told me a month ago that I would have one of the best seafood feasts in a hospital, I would have laughed in your face.

One of my closest friends in Singapore is a beautiful, multi-talented, highly intelligent, and kindest doctor I have ever met. And I have met quite a few. It is quite easy to hate this paragon of beauty and brains if she did not have such a fabulous personality. Hanging out with her is always fun, mentally stimulating, stress and angst-free and best of all, gastronomically rewarding. The woman likes her food. Boy, does she like her food. Most of our gatherings involve food and Ser knows some of the best places in town so I unabashedly go to her when I need culinary inspiration.

I always knew Ser can cook as I was once invited to her home where we cooked up a storm in a basic kitchen (she was in the midst of moving of sorts), using beyond basic kitchen equipment and aluminum foil for plates. It affirmed my belief that flatware and utensils do not a feast make. It is the ingredients and cooks who create the magic. I have been in situations where we are challenged by lack of ingredients, equipment or space and the food has been phenomenal. Compare that to the many occasions where I have dined on the finest china, been served the most expensive truffled this or that and the food has been a flaming insult to my palate … I’ll take the aluminum foiled feast anytime, thank you very much.

Ser was holding a small farewell party at the hospital where she works for a couple of her housemen and knowing my avid foodblogmania, invited me to partake of this feast. What got me was that she was going to cook all the food in the hospital. No, not in the hospital canteen or kitchen. In their office pantry. Which boasted one toaster oven, one microwave oven, a turbo broiler (finally I am not the only person I know who has one!), a hotplate and … that’s it!

This is Survivor (or Ser-vivor if you want to be corny ... OK, I shall then!), Hospital Food Style. I just had to be there. So off I went, carting two cameras, one tripod, and one empty stomach to a hospital for a clandestine seafood feast. How surreal is that? I avoid hospitals like the plague and here I am happily cavorting in the halls of a hospital with a camera looking for food.

By the time I got to the hospital, Ser had corralled her assistant cook, aka starving and well-trained houseman, to harness his scrubbing skills for the bountiful crabs and clams purchased from KK Market that morning. Those crabs were huge! Some of them were even bigger than my hand extended to the fullest! But CA (short for Chef’s Assistant) was up for the task. You know, maybe doctors have their uses after all as he did a really good job of scrubbing the crustaceans. And it was all done with such surgical precision too!

Ser, like me, is an instinctive cook and basically just throws in whatever suits her mood at that moment. Tasting, throwing … more tasting, more throwing … panic, not enough bowls … all hands on deck looking or receptacles … pouring, wiping the spills like crazy … more tasting, some throwing … and so it goes.

It is busy in the tiny little pantry with a table groaning under the weight of fresh seafood, bottles of condiments and spices, makeshift containers, one toaster oven and a hotplate. Lord, the smells in the room! What antiseptic smell? If hospitals smelled like that all the time, I might have less of a problem with them. People kept coming in and out of the pantry enticed by the glorious aroma of fresh seafood cooking under the loving hands of a passionate food-lover.

Ser ruled the space like an Asian Nigella Lawson. There was an uncanny resemblance. Ser was casually focused, retained her grace under pressure, was seen licking her fingers and spoons many times, her eyes sparkling from behind her beautiful waterfall of hair, all smiles and gentle, infectious humour and was just haphazardly charming and comfortable while cooking up six seafood dishes.

Yes, people, there were six humongous dishes. All cooked on a little hotplate, an equally little toaster oven and one turbo broiler. The microwave oven was hardly touched. And it only took her about 3 hours from the time they arrived in the hospital. Amazing.

What’s even more amazing is that it all tasted incredibly delicious. There was a spicy chilli clam dish that was redolent with wine and garlic; a wonderful preparation of the plumpest prawns in spicy chilli broth and its counterpart in dryer garlic and butter sauce. Too delicious for words. The only fly in the ointment was the lobster which took an incredibly long time to cook in the turbo broiler, prompting me to call it the Lobster That Would Not Die. I know seafood affects me in strange ways ... supreme corniness being one of them.

The crowning jewel in Poseidon’s bounty was the Sri Lankan crabs. These massive babies were cooked in an unusual sauce made of mashed salted egg yolks, turmeric, wine, garlic and spices. It was utterly delicious and there was much smacking of lips, cracking of shells and sucking of juices in the conference room.

I shan’t wax lyrical anymore but let the pictures speak for themselves. I’d like to thank Ser for her selfless and wonderful gift of cooking such a grand feast and inviting me; the hospital for once changing my dire opinion of hospitals in general; the other doctors and housemen who proved to be great fun and sports; my father, my mother, my … oh, sorry, having a Cuba Gooding Jr moment there.

Dude, save some for me!

I'll think about it

Fine, be like that ...

Just like surgery

After that huge feast, Ser, Charmaine, her mum and I went to a quiet little café to rest our swollen bellies and sated taste buds with some coffee and conversation. The coffee was a wonderful end to a lovely feast, with the swirling creams and chocolatey bittersweetness. I was one deliriously happy camper. I feasted in the place of my nightmares but it turned out to be fabulous afternoon of scrumptious food, great company and lovely memories. I cannot think of a better way to spend a day.

But I am still not a fan of hospitals.


Blogger hinata said...

Great to see the sudden flood of posts after your long absence! Hope you're feeling better now!

The seafood dinner looks amazing, that is true skill! I got married in hospital (my mom was recovering from surgery and we didn't want her to miss it), and the staff were so thrilled to have even that small celebration in the hospital for a change. I can't imagine how delighted they must've been with all that wonderful food!!!

12:51 pm  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Hate hospitals too, but would consider visiting one for a feast like that!

8:11 am  
Blogger Hungry Jaye said...

I surfed in from the Boston Chefs' site...

This is fantastic! Love the pictures, especially of the crabs. I also work in a hospital as an admininstrator and researcher, and let me tell you..nothing can bring everybody out of their offices like food! The way everything was cooked sans stove must earn you a place in the history books for the most creative luncheon.

12:45 am  
Blogger MM said...

Hey Surfindaave - You would have loved it! Boy did I pig out!

Hungry Jaye - Thanks & welcome -Boston Chefs' a great blog, eh? Actually, Ser and gang were very worried that they would be caught and reprimanded for cooking in the pantry but everyone was just happy to get some food!

12:51 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Hinata - I am trying to make up for the lack of posts and also because there is a big backlog of photos which I need to write about.

It did take tremendous skill to cook the feast in that environment. Ser is a culinary genius!

I hope your mum is all better now but what an experience getting married in a hospital! Definitely memorable.

12:58 pm  

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