“Did he say bak choy, or siew bak choy?”

That question broke silence one sunny afternoon sitting at home at the dining table. There was no re-introduction, no recollection of a conversation dropped.

 And yet, he knew exactly to what she was referring.

Bak choy,” he answered in Hokkien.

“Oh, bak choy then it will taste very nice. If siew bak choy not so nice,” she responded, giving a curt nod.

I hadn’t the faintest idea of the dish being discussed, but knew enough Hokkien, a popular Malaysian Chinese dialect – and enough of their leisurely habits – to know that my in-laws were talking about a recipe they’d seen on the Food Channel, or perhaps on TVB (called Jade World, the equivalent of Astro’s Wa Lai Toi).

If food is a focus of life for many, it is perhaps the focus of life for the Chinese. It is second only to the purpose of life, which is the unabashed accumulation of wealth. This is a very old-fashioned opinion of my own people. However, like an old well, it still retains some truth. In some, it even overruns. 

The Chinese live to eat, a phrase so apt for our affliction that it could’ve been made just for us. And I challenge anyone to find another civilisation that places as much emphasis and delight on the soothing of one’s palate, the satisfaction of one’s (too) curious tastebuds and the filling of one’s stomach.

Here’s my observation: This craving becomes more arresting with age. The older we get, the more consumed we are about food. It is as if retirement itself was effected simply to give one more time to eat or to think about eating.

Cases in point: My parents and my in-laws. Once reunited, after the usual exchanges are made, including observations about one’s health deduced mainly from one’s ever-expanding waistline (so much so that if it does go the other way, alarm is the first emotion expressed instead of applause), the subject changes quickly to what to eat for lunch or dinner or whatever the next meal is, as though the only purpose for meeting is so that we can be fed.

Food is talked about everyday, at all times of the day. From breakfast to supper, from daybreak to sundown, from teeth brushing to teeth brushing, dish after dish, past, present and future, is discussed and relished and analysed and picked apart until every morsel is understood and digested and committed to memory.

The ultimate consumer and the ultimate consumption.

I wonder. Will we talk only about food when we’re old?

Probably, for I do so love to eat, even now.

And I imagine my husband’s reply would be, “That, and levelling and questing.”