When your life is in boxes, you begin to rethink how much stuff you really need.
I certainly did last month, when I took two weeks' leave from work to pack up my home for major renovations. I had been dreading it for the better part of a year, but then, it came down to the wire and had to be done.
"What do you think - 100, 150 boxes?" I ask the mover, who has come to quote me a price.
"Eighty, I think," he says.
Well, it ended up being 117 boxes, after shedding half my belongings. It helped that I have no emotional attachment to things and no qualms about parting with stuff.
In fact, the cull was the best part of the tedious exercise.
And yet, I have 117 boxes.
I live a pretty austere life, although people might have a hard time believing it.
When not eating for work or pleasure (they are not the same), I stick to the same, boring breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I have no problem wearing the same shoes or toting the same bag for months. My home is not filled with tchotchkes. I do not accessorise.
But I demand lushness in very specific areas.
I want, for instance, to be surrounded by food books. They take up half the boxes.
Joy is being horizontal on a Sunday, binge-watching Netflix's excellent four-part series Salt Fat Acid Heat, an exploration by cookbook author Samin Nosrat of the most important elements of cooking.
I can relate to the unbridled joy that lights up her face as she samples Italian salumi, and spend the rest of the day leafing through her book, one that will always find space on my shelves. I have a pile of sticky notes by my side, to mark out all the recipes I want to cook, but it is pointless because she makes me want to cook them all.
If I want to make Japanese pickles, I can pull several books off my shelves and find out exactly how. Same with bundt cakes and macrobiotic food.
There are plenty of recipes online and I can watch cooking videos on YouTube. Yet, nothing beats the excitement of holding a cookbook in my hands, inhaling the smell of paper, cracking it open and discovering a new world.
I don't want to cook with one salt, I want an array. I have salt to use while cooking, salt for adding to food just before serving, salt for making kimchi, two kinds of Kosher salt, salt for adding smokiness to food. The textures - coarse, fine, flaky or granular - feel different in the hand. Some taste of minerals, others of briny depths. I love the nuance good salt adds to food.
You will never find a Thermomix machine or sous vide stick in my kitchen. But I cannot have too many enamelled cast iron pots, too many Dansk Kobenstyle casseroles, too many All-Clad pans. Gadgets do not thrill me, but these basic pots are versatile, and if I take care of them properly, they'll last a lifetime.
The first 50 boxes go into storage and my home continues to empty out. I pack very zealously and am left with just the basics to live on while I am a squatter for a couple of months - some clothes, books and kitchen stuff.
I test recipes for four upcoming columns using just a little pan, a vintage Pyrex casserole, the oven, two knives and a very small assortment of crockery. I had not even thought to have on hand a proper dinner plate.
While clearing out the pantry, I discover some raw almonds and walnuts, and a stash of shichimi togarashi, a seven-spice blend I had bought in Tokyo. I have some maple syrup in the fridge and a staggering amount of butter in the freezer.
They all come together for a snack of warm, spicy nuts that is dangerously easy to make. Eat them warm, with some dry sherry or beer. I use a lot of shichimi because I love how the ground chilli, sesame, seaweed and other elements crust around the nuts, which darken beautifully when the maple caramelises on them.
While snacking, I think of a recent conversation with a friend. He gave away his entire collection of books and sold two container loads of furniture from the 1950s that he had kept in storage for decades. The stuff no longer fit into his pared-down life.
On his face is relief writ large, and a soupcon of regret.
"I figured if I really wanted to read a book again, well, it's in the bookstore, right?"
I like to say, entirely too flippantly, that too much is never enough.
Yet I have learnt, and will continue to learn, to live with much less. It has been liberating so far.
When I unpack, I will, of course, cull some more.
But I will be keeping at least one book.
- 30g salted butter
- 50g maple syrup or honey
- 500g raw almonds, walnuts, cashews or a combination of all three
- 1 Tbs shichimi togarashi or smoked paprika
- Sea salt to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 180 deg C. Line a baking tray with paper. I use the tray that comes with the oven. If using anything smaller, line two trays with paper.
2. Melt the butter and maple syrup in a small, non-stick pan over low heat.
3. Place the nuts in a bowl. Add the butter mixture and shichimi togarashi, toss with a spoon to coat the nuts with butter and spice.
4. Spread the nuts out in one layer on the baking tray and slide it into the oven.
5. Roast 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, toss with a spoon and roast another 10 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven, add salt to taste - Maldon Smoked Sea Salt is good for this. Let it cool for 10 to 15 minutes and serve.
Serves four to six with drinks.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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