Growing up in a Singapore, a country that follows the lunar as well as the Western calendar, celebrating two birthdays each year was always a given. Cake, flowers and presents are lovely for Western birthdays. But for lunar calendar birthdays — or Chinese birthdays, as my family calls them — things are several notches simpler. The star of this show is always a bowl of noodles, symbolic of longevity, a pair of hardboiled eggs, representing fertility or life. And all of this comes in a sugary soup — "so the whole year will be sweet," as my mother says.
For too many years in America, my Chinese birthday — which I'm fortunate to be able to remember easily because it falls on Diwali each year — passed with little fanfare. Sure, my parents would call New York to wish me well. But the noodles, the eggs and the sweet broth — that always seemed like just a little too much trouble.
This year, however, as Diwali began today, I found myself temporarily stranded in Singapore due to unforeseen circumstances. So for lunch, my mother had a little treat planned: birthday noodles. "You must eat this," she said. "For luck."
New York is filled with so many “pan-Asian” restaurants that it can be difficult to get excited about yet another one setting up shop.
Vietnamese pork chops? Been there. Summer rolls? So, so done that.
And Obao, Michael Huynh’s newest addition to his rapidly expanding string of Manhattan restaurants, hits these and all the other usual notes that you’ll find at many other similarly billed places in the city.
What’s different? Not much, compared with your run-of-the-mill multi-ethnic Asian restaurant.
There are some hits — anything meaty and/or grilled. And, of course, some misses, namely a “spicy” Singapore laksa (pictured above) that’s so watered down that its broth tastes like hot water with some curry powder tossed in toward the end.
But here’s the thing: Even at Obao’s recession-friendly prices (which put entrees between $9 and $18), for those who enjoy a hearty bowl of noodle soup or a crisp papaya salad now and then, there are just so many other places in the city to go for better versions.
I’ve always envied people who can look in a fridge, grab a bunch of things and whip together an impressive meal.
The times that I’ve done that, I’ve managed to oh, muster up a ham scramble.
As someone who entered the kitchen fairly late in life, my insecurities always get the better of me. So when it comes to cooking, I’m much more of a planner — I like to think things through a fair bit first if I’ve never made a dish before. I’ll look up dozens of recipes before settling on what to make. And I’ll read a recipe several times over to plan any changes or additions before setting foot in the kitchen.
But, watching the ease and freedom of chefs who cook purely by instinct — that confidence always gets me. I can’t help but feel like the child on a tricycle, watching far braver kids whizzing past on ten-speed bikes.
How to bridge that gulf?
In the kitchen of a little beach cottage on Nantucket, I started taking baby steps.