You know that smell. Home after half a decade spent on the other side of the world, and you still know that smell.
It makes a beeline for you from across the street, shoving aside the exhaust fumes of a thousand motorbikes and the stench of sewage baking under the sun. It scurries up your nostrils and thrashes about in your brain, evicting every coherent thought for the only one that matters. You sit back for the showreel playing in your skull:
It starts with oil from the previous batch; the health-conscious would stoop so low as to use terms like “rancid” or “carcinogenic,” but to you it is liquid gold. Into the wok it goes, and to that the vendor adds a different kind of liquid gold; the egg puffs up and swells with joy until a metal spatula divides it into little yellow morsels of love. But the egg is getting lonely, which is why a good helping of minced garlic is there to keep it company.
(You love garlic. Good lord, you love garlic.)
Next comes the main event: A mound of day-old rice, sitting primly in a basket until the whole thing gets heaped into the wok. The egg and the garlic gasp for air, but only for a terrifying moment, because the concoction gets swirled around until all the ingredients are giggling at each other’s jokes.
A dash of chili sauce. A pinch of salt. A dusting of pepper. And a crucial teaspoon of MSG (at this point, you’re ready to get into fisticuffs with anyone who dares claim something so pure and innocent could give someone a headache). But nothing defines an authentic streetside Nasi Goreng quite like a good dose of thick, syrupy-sweet soy sauce, draped across the rice like midnight-black ribbons. Then comes the tossing, the wok serving as the dance floor for every morsel of flavor until they’ve gazed into each other’s eyes and exchanged phone numbers.
The showreel stops. You can’t hold it in much longer—like having a raging erection in one hand and a certain type of magazine in the other. You almost collide with a motorbike on your way to the origin of that sacred aroma. The little boy and his three passengers throw cusses over their shoulders as they speed off, stacked together on the tiny seat like books on a shelf. And yet you smile all the same, because you know you’re home when the sight of such an atrocity feels normal.
You step into the shade of a corrugated metal roof, and it is just like the first time all over again: the tightly-packed benches, the frantic scraping of spatulas against metal, the stray cats meandering between legs in pursuit of scraps. And the flies; ah, it wouldn’t be Indonesia if you didn’t have to defend every meal from an onslaught of huge, shiny bluebottles.
The vendor knows your face, so of course he compliments your outfit, pats your back with a greasy hand, and offers you a serving on the house. You watch, the awe of your youth returning to your eyes, as flames lick the underside of the wok and sauce-coated grains of rice perform somersaults over it. Your stomach does an excellent impression of a lion then, at which the vendor chuckles as he hands you love on a plate.
You seize a half-empty bench against the far wall, and your salivary glands are working overtime knowing that you are about to delve into the same world of unbridled joy that the people stuffing themselves with noodles and rice around you are. Beautiful steam wraps its loving hands around you and for a second you just sit there and stare at the work of art on your plate, every delicious component carefully selected to impart something crucial to flavor, aroma, texture and aesthetic.
You wield a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, and you are ready, you are so ready to silence the screams in the pit of your stomach, to go medieval on this plate of salty, umami, greasy scrumptiousness.
But the cutlery hovers in place, refusing to budge. That’s odd. You’re hungry and nostalgic, so what else could be missing?
A patchwork of mangled fur streaks out from underneath the table; you soothe the man across from you into ceasing his onslaught on the poor creature. In fact, you go so far as to select a strip of egg from your plate and dangle it in sight of the stray. You feel only pity as it tentatively paws over to your side of the bench and waits for you to drop it.
That’s when you remember, the beautiful aromas of this place finally hauling the last dregs of your past to the surface.
She was shooing one away too, the first time her rickety frame fell into your line of sight. You made it abundantly clear that you wouldn’t eat a single grain of rice her dad cooked if she didn’t let you feed the cats. Risk of disease or some other flavor of horseshit. They’ve set up shop next to an open sewer, for goodness’ sake!
Still, you were patient with her, and it was either that or your shit-eating, testosterone-fuelled grin that coaxed her into pressing her shoulder against yours as she laid a tall glass of iced tea on the table, free of charge.
That wasn’t a memory. The stray scampers off before you get to feed it; in its place is a pair of pink flip-flops, and of course they can only fit a certain pair of feet.
Her smile slides into your memories like butter; it’s the same shy playfulness, the same lone dimple that graces her left cheek. You reciprocate by taking a sip of the tea, which tastes like puppy love. How long has it been? Five years? Six? You’re flabbergasted by how good she looks despite all the women you’ve seen abroad, with their blue eyes and freckles and hair like fire. Here she stands, scrawny, dark-eyed and dark-haired, and yet she ignites something inside you all the same.
You watch fondly as she takes a strip of egg from your plate and calls the cat back. After the feline is as satisfied as you are, she presses against you, shoulder kissing yours, and only now do you find the drive to dig in.
Everything tastes as good as you remember.