Editor | Heather Lim
Contributing Writer | Faith Agili, Hanna Wdzieczak, Nathasha Lee, Rachel Hau
Photographer | Audrey Lim
“Uncle, one cheese prata and one teh bing please!” I chirp enthusiastically as I order my regular Friday supper fix from the 24-hour coffee shop located a 5-min drive away from my house. “Woah, you again ah,” the man at the counter replies with a chuckle, giving me an approving nod. I grin sheepishly, feeling a little guilty for my excessive supper intake but also secretly proud that the man affirmed my loyalty to their food.
Friday supper nights at that particular coffee shop has always been a tradition for my family. I have lost track of the countless times we have frequented that place since we moved into our neighborhood thirteen years ago. We waffled down the pratas when my younger, puberty-growing brother had random late night hunger pangs, when I wanted to de-stress during hectic exam periods, and after we attended a wedding that served atas* looking but bland food. To me, the “cheese-prata-and-teh-bing” combination means a time spent with my three boisterous siblings and my parents.
Recently, that “cheese-prata-and-teh-bing” combination has also taken on another meaning for me as I transition into college and start living on campus. It is now a gateway for late night conversations with friends, as we plop ourselves on the suite’s sofa, immersing in unproductive ruminations about life. It has also become my survival kit as i frantically race to submit my essay before the 23:59 deadline.
But I think that particular combination — watching my siblings jester as they munch on their pratas, my dad’s contented face as he sips on his teh and my mom’s eyebrows furrow as she drones on about how unhealthy the pratas are -- continues to hold a unique place in my heart. To me, food has a special meaning that goes beyond just filling our tummy. It reminds me of home.
Rachel Hau from Singapore writes of a similar experience of food reminding her of home. She shares:
“Milk tea has been a constant in my life as I’ve journeyed away from home. During the summer of 2015, my morning routine in Beijing comprised checking the AQI (Air Quality Index), inspecting my Singaporean instant milk tea sachets, and debating whether I should risk prematurely depleting my milk tea supply. (I had ascertained that local instant milk tea was not a satisfying alternative.)
I mentioned milk tea to nearly all of my summer Chinese teachers, so before I left, I handed them each a sachet. A taste of home, I said, and hoped they too, would be fond of its taste, just as I was, and still am. My pursuit of milk tea is also one of the few things that galvanises me into action. Being away from home for six months without truly affordable milk tea prompted me to improvise my own teh tarik. After some online research, I excitedly sought out cans of condensed and evaporated milk as well as black tea bags in London’s supermarkets.
My obsession with milk tea is perhaps unhealthy. But milk tea — be it teh, Hong Kong-style milk tea, or oolong milk tea with pearls — has brought me familiarity and warmth, and accompanied me in moments of loneliness and anxiety. I take it for granted at home, and outside of home, I wonder if milk tea as I know it is an “acquired taste” foreigners might find strange. Still, in times of tedium and joy and sadness, I hope a comforting cup will continue to be in my hand.”
For Faith Agili, food is the devotion to one's family and culture. She shares:
“As I lift the lid of the sufuria, steam vapor slaps me on the face. Next, I confirm that the water has boiled by the black soot that has already formed at the bottom of the pot. I slowly pour the milled maize flour in the water, simultaneously stirring it with my mwiko. The mixture has changed from an almost soup like state to that of a big mound of white mass. I set aside the flour and proceed to pound the white mass. Do not be mistaken. There is a rhythm to the pounding that requires quick and sure movements that only a few have mastered. The aroma and consistency of the mass puts a stop to my efforts. I then take a tempered glass plate and serve it at the table, in the form of a small hill. We call this dish ugali. It can be accompanied by fish, chicken, kales, cabbage… the possibilities are endless.
This dish to me represents the hard work that goes to providing for others, the consistency that is required of one’s efforts and devotion to family— for without my mother’s tutelage, I wouldn’t have perfected making the dish.”
To Nathasha Lee from Singapore, food is a means of expression, a challenge she is willing to take. She writes,
A jar of lava-red chilli oil sits on my living room table. I snack on it like ice cream: spoon after spoon, letting it reverberate across the roof of my mouth, scorching my lips like a flaming torch. I love letting the searing heat dance on my tongue.
As a child, I had struggled with anything spicy. My family dinners were, and still are, laden with golden-orange vegetable curries, crimson kimchi stews and stir-fried vegetables doused liberally in chilli paste. “You can’t even tolerate that!?” my sister would ask incredulously as a mouthful of my mother’s aglio oglio left me gasping for water. My tender tongue was just another way, on top of my fear of strangers and clowns, that I was chided for being ‘the sensitive one’ in the family.
My tastebuds have toughened over the years. Now, my spice tolerance has become a personal hallmark. I can down tom yum goong and sambal kangkong toe-to-toe with my family members, and make my classmates gasp by stirring cubes of mala paste into my hot pot soup until it turns a noxious red. “You seem like a very intense person,” my college counsellor once remarked upon seeing my food choices.
From then on, eating spicy food became one of my modes of expression. Challenging myself by eating the hottest dishes has become my way of showing how I’ve matured and grown. If we are what we eat, I’d like to think a little of the fire of the food burns within me.”
Other than personal reminders, food can also be a gateway to other cultures, as Hanna Wdzieczak from Poland shares.
“I cannot exactly remember the day I tried out Southeast Asian cuisine for the first time. Regular outings to a little restaurant called Truc.Xanh had already became a weekend ritual for me and my dad, during which I gradually learnt about some foreign countries of ‘strange names’: Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Thailand. The food we tried out there – mostly different types of fried rice, mixed with vegetables, meat and seafood – was different from my everyday diet, composed of bread, cheese and pasta. For a 10-year old who had rarely traveled outside Poland, these moments exposed me to foreign cultures I had practically no other way of knowing.
I believe that food was a gateway to my subsequent interest in Southeast Asian culture, history and languages. When you live in a monoethnic country where you have very few chances of getting to know other cultures, sometimes it is the basic necessity – eating, which can make you more open towards other parts of the world.
Nine years later, eating rice with fried tofu (I became pescatarian) in the Yale-NUS dining hall, it still feels great. I regard eating the local food as a way of assimilating to my new home, Singapore, but sometimes returning back to simple spaghetti carbonara or toast with cheese makes my life complete.”
*Atas: high-class, expensive