Cafe Hopping: Four Weekends With My Mother-in-law
Week Zero: 5 March, Saturday, Home.
I think I might be on to something. Today, I felt bad that my husband, Nigel, and I were lounging about at a cafe instead of spending time with his mum. You see, we usually have dinner with her on Saturday nights, either at home with a simple Taiwan-style hotpot, or out to a Thai restaurant she likes. But I didn’t want her to feel like we were just having a meal with her every week just because we had to. So I thought — why don’t we change it up and bring her out to the cafes we enjoy hanging out at? She’d like that. She is open to new experiences, beautiful spaces and of course, good food. After all, she’s one of the best cooks I know. Each night, there’s a lovingly boiled pot of soup waiting on the stove, and sometimes, a meticulously made bento that never fails to make my day. Anyway, other than being polite and helpful around the house, there’s gotta be something else I can do as a daughter-in-law to show her that I care, right? When we told her the plan to visit a cafe next weekend, her eyes lit up in excitement. I was glad. Ok, time to start thinking of which cafe to start with!
Week One: 12 March, Saturday, The Lokal.
Today was the first day of bringing my MIL out to a cafe. I was nervous. I mean, I have been to this cafe tons of times, but bringing your MIL out to eat is a totally different story. Suddenly, this whole thing seemed like a bad idea. Will she think I’m a fool for paying this much for bread, eggs and coffee? Will she enjoy her meal or think I am trying to poison her with weird foreign food?? OK. I had to calm down. I chose The Lokal as a good, safe choice with a wide variety for brunch. Remember, there’s house-made ricotta. It will be OK. Also, I was especially excited to let her try The Lokal’s house-smoked mackerel, since we eat a lot of the Japanese version at home. I excitedly ordered three dishes for us to share: a platter of sausages and potatoes, pimped a breakfast plate full of my favourites, and went for the special of the day — a mackerel salad. The food was great, I thought to myself, as I joyfully stabbed bits from each plate and munched on my perfectly loaded forkful of ricotta, mushroom and mackerel. I took a break from my shovelling, and glanced over at my MIL. Uh oh. She wore a slightly quizzical look on her face, and was politely nodding as my husband emphatically explained how special it was that they smoked their own fish. Hmmm, this wasn’t going so well. Perhaps I should stop shovelling.
As she finished up her last spoonful of sticky date pudding, she wiped her mouth, identified the middle-aged Aussie chef working hard over the counter and said, “他用的东西好，但是这样吃。。。很乱.” He uses good ingredients, but to eat like this is….very messy. I nodded solemnly while making a mental note that perhaps this meal was a little too eclectic. Defeated, I called for the bill. Perhaps I’ll do better next week. As if offering a remedy to the mess of a meal, she began to peel a Mandarin orange which mysteriously emerged from her handbag. “来，吃橙子。” Come, eat this orange.
Week Two: 19 March, Saturday, Nylon.
This week, I am thinking…coffee. After my “failure” last week, my MIL seems extra positive about this week. I think she can sense that I’m trying to please her. I chirpily told of how this place only sells coffee, and even sources and roasts their own beans. But as we approached this quaint little spot beneath a HDB block, she began to look skeptical. She laid her eyes upon the strange setup — just one standing table indoors, a couple of narrow benches outside and a large crate beside the door — and looked unsure of what to think. I quickly ordered, praying the near-flawless 5oz White I believe to be one of the best in the country would please her. As we perched ourselves a little uncomfortably on the crate, she looked around and remarked that it was nice to see friends gathering leisurely to enjoy a cup of coffee while letting their kids play. She also took notice that the people who worked here seemed very serious, and was impressed by their dedication. She began to look pleased. When her coffee arrived, she asked, as most mothers would, “有糖吗?” Is there sugar? Nigel quickly explained that she should try it first, that this coffee didn’t need any sugar. With mild disbelief, she took one sip, then another. I swear those 10 seconds felt like forever. A formidable white moustache formed on her upper lip, and with a dramatic nod, she proclaimed, “这样就对了。” Now this is right.
Nigel and I shot a look of shock at each other, grinned in relief, and relaxed in our seats as she drained the cup clean. Today was a good day.
Week 3: 26 March, Saturday, Artistry.
Remember how I was so pleased that she enjoyed Nylon? Perhaps bringing her to one of the top spots for coffee right off the bat wasn’t such a great move after all. I think I swung too hard, too fast. She cannot stop raving about it. In her adorable manner of showing how much she enjoyed her experience, she makes it a point to express how no other coffee can compare, even when it is masterfully made. Today, at Artistry — a place I strongly believe serves excellent coffee — she gave the unsuspecting server an immediate, passionate review, “太多牛奶! 不够香!” Too much milk! Not fragrant enough! I prayed that the server’s sheepish nod in response was because he did not understand Mandarin. And even if he did, the big wide smile with which she said it and her Super Aunty Powers made it impossible
to not forgive her. She only meant well. My father-in-law spent the meal in silence, completely entranced by the piquant chili sauce that came with the Chili Crab Burger. He broke his silence only to murmur the ingredients he tasted, “sugar…garlic…”. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, happily gobbled up her crispy kale, potato hash, bacon and silky scrambled eggs and said, “哦！盘子好看”。Oh! The plate is pretty. She was right, their handmade plates are gorgeous.
I will…take this as a win.
Week 4: 2 April, Saturday, Curious Palette.
I wanted to take my MIL to Artichoke for brunch today, but I forgot to make reservations. What a dummy. Thankfully, Curious Palette was just around the corner. It’s a space I really enjoy being in, especially at the tables near the end where natural light streams in and the big, leafy potted plants instantly relax you. As we walked through the long shophouse space to our table, she noticed all the young people chatting and eating in groups, and commented that the cafe has a nice energy. While waiting for our food to arrive, a soft-shelled crab dish was carried past her to a table beside us. She eyed the dish and mused, “不够脆。” Not crisp enough. Whoa. This lady is sharp. I had avoided ordering that dish precisely because many had shared that exact review on Burpple. You see, it’s easy to forget that she has an exceedingly discerning palate and eye, and that MILs in general have been through a lot in life. When you meet her, you’ll see a fairly short, pastel-clad, FitFlop-wearing aunty with a thermos of hot water perpetually slung around her forearm — and I mean this in the best way possible. She’s just plain adorable.
Thankfully she enjoyed the mains we ordered, but it was when the buttermilk waffles arrived that she knew we were on to something special. Just one mouthful of the fragrant, warm, fluffy waffle with vibrant berries and banana slices gently studded in cool, thick yoghurt, she said, “哦！又冷又烧 … 好吃！ 还好你懂得叫!” Oh! Its nice that its both hot and cold at the same time! Lucky you know what to order! I can’t really explain it, but I couldn’t help but feel…content.
Although these meals weren’t extremely different from the usual dinners we had together, I began to understand why they felt more special. There’s something about the act of taking someone out, of putting thought into whether they’d enjoy the place and being sure to order the right food. In fact, it didn’t matter that she didn’t completely enjoy the food. I realised I was happy to just be able to show her a little bit of my world, and that she too was accommodating me and my need to prove that I cared about making a good impression. More importantly, our brunch conversations were vastly different from our dinner ones, somehow both lighthearted and insightful. We learnt so much about her, the little, random things that make a person…whole. While growing up in the mountains of Taiwan, she used to make whistles out of leaves. I also would never have guessed that she was a little rascal who loved climbing trees. Perhaps it was the less familiar food / environment along with the laid back nature of cafes that allowed the conversation to drift, to go as it may. And of course, who can forget the cup of coffee that’s changed things forever for her?