A Singaporean’s Longings For Home Cooking

I’ll always remember an incident that happened on my first business trip to Australia. The strictness of the Australian customs is legendary but I thought I didn’t have anything to worry about simply because I wasn’t carrying any food. I thought I was cleared until I came to another checkpoint and another officer asked me the same questions and when I replied in the negative, he continued to ask quite seriously, “Are you sure? No tea? Coffee? Milo? Nasi Lemak?”

“Nasi Lemak?! No.” I said tersely with a look of disdain and he waved me through. Why on earth anyone want to smuggle Nasi Lemak all the way from Singapore to Adelaide? On looking back, I had perhaps underestimated the Singaporean obsession with food. Much has been said about food and how it defines the Singaporean identity. It is undeniable that food is the one thing which can really unite very different Singaporeans.

I spent last year living as a student in London. It is not my first time living here; I spent 9 months in London on a working holiday five years ago. The only difference between my experiences , is how much more I missed Singaporean food! Perhaps, it was because this time, I had a small community of about ten friends from Singapore in the UK with me.The ten of us were all involved in the arts in one way or another so when we met, the conversation inevitably comes to the arts and food.

We might have had very different views about arts and almost everything under the sun but when it came to Singaporean food, we all agreed on the same thing. We love it, we missed it and it’s the best food in the world!

We all had become some sort of expert of sorts at cooking even though we hadn’t cooked much back home. We’d share tips on where to find the best Singaporean/ Malaysian eating places in London and where to get the cheapest Asian produce in London. If Singaporeans are foodies, then imagine the obsession of food-deprived overseas Singaporeans!

We craved something not because we actually wanted it, but because we wanted the memory of how that particular food made us feel. We wanted it because it reminded us of our friends, family and home. We once had someone import Ngoh Hiang skin because we wanted to make our own ngoh hiang since it just is not sold here.

One of the first parties we had as a group was themed as a Comfort Food Party where we each had to prepare our favourite comfort food from home. The menu included Vegetarian Bee Hoon, Chicken Curry, Laksa, Prawn Keropok, Sambal Goreng , Sambal Kangkong, Petai & Ikan Bilis Sambal and Bak kwa! We were quite satiated even if the tempeh in the sambal goreng was from Belgium and wrapped in plastic instead of leaves and the laksa had no hum (cockles) and made with Prima instant mix.

After that first party, we kept in touch…sharing our culinary adventures, trying out new recipes and posting the photos of the results on Facebook, commenting on each other’s photos and often congratulating ourselves even though we did not quite replicate the authentic taste of the food from home.After all, you can cook the food yourself but it can never beat the experience of ‘going to buy the wanton mee from downstairs cos mum didn’t cook tonight’.

Which brings me back to the issue of food smuggling.

I now know who’d smuggle nasi lemak to Adelaide; my guess would be a homesick nasi-lemak deprived Singaporean…just like one of my friends who got his boyfriend to smuggle Wanton Mee from the ‘downstairs coffeeshop’ all the way to London. Don’t ask me how he did it.

To this day, I still do not understand the nitty gritty of the smuggling operation. I’d have to say that I couldn’t really identify with the extreme of importing hawker food…but then again, I was lucky that my only craving was limited to more manageable foodstuff like crispy nyonya prawn rolls and pineapple tarts from Tiong Bahru, which are allowed.

But I guess if those weren’t allowed in, I might have resorted to smuggling them as well. I now feel guilty for scoffing at a friend who had asked for epok-epok to be delivered to her in Italy a few years ago. I guess that customs officer in Australia had seen his fair share of such cases.

Just recently, I found out that another friend has managed to smuggle screwpine leaves (that’s pandan leaves to us!) into Spain and was happily looking forward to cooking Nasi Lemak. He seemed very proud of his accomplishment and so I didn’t have the heart to tell him that another friend in Aberdeen had two tubs of home-cooked Nasi Lemak delivered to her the month before.

I’m so glad to be home. But if I go back to the UK, and if ever a customs officer asks me if I have Nasi Lemak in my bag, I might just smile, say no and hope he takes my word for it.

***

I’ve never really been a big eater of Singaporean hawker food. I enjoy eating but I don’t consciously have to have Singaporean dishes. I found out that my Singaporean friends in the UK feel the same way too. So I’ve always wondered why we actually crave Singaporean food. Did we take Singaporean hawker food for granted because they are ubiquitous? Do we really don’t know what we have until we don’t have them anymore? Do we really crave food from home because we miss the food itself or because we miss all of the things associated with the food?

RYDWAN ANWAR

Rydwan Anwar is currently a programming officer at Esplanade –Theatres on the Bay (Singapore). He graduated from the National University of Singapore Theatre Studies Programme in 2003 and has since worked for theatre companies like The Necessary Stage and TheatreWorks (Singapore Season in London). He has programmed for Esplanade’s ‘The Studios’ season and the Flipside Festival and produced commissioned local works for its da:ns festival. He recently completed an MA in Creative & Cultural Industries at King’s College London on a National Arts Council Scholarship.

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