Eating Together: The Design of Sharing Food in a Connected World

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PHOTOS: Clarence Aw

How and what does it mean to eat together today? Last month at Objectifs, my partner and I presented Eating Together: The Design of Sharing Food in a Connected World, an exhibition that examines the objects, systems and spaces that help us share food today.

Commissioned for the inaugural FoodCine.ma 2016, this showcase presented 15 objects, speculative designs and installations that arose out of observations of how design facilitates the ways we eat together in Singapore. Whether it is consuming forever “fresh” food, having meals at our hawker centres, dining in both life and death, or eating with digital devices, we invited visitors to look at eating beyond a mere ingestion of food, but as a consumption of values and cultures.

More about the exhibition, as well as the book we published to document the concepts and our ethnographic research.

Dreams and Pragmatism: A Conversation Between Generations

Most people queue to buy food, but Ng Chiam Hui and Malcolm Lee waited for hours to find out how the hawkers prepared their favourite dishes.

Chiam Hui is born in 1949 in Fujian, China, while Malcolm is born a Singaporean Peranakan almost 40 years later. These men belong to two different generations but they have the same patience for a good recipe.

In the late 1960s, Chiam Hui ate duck rice for a week so that he could spy on the adjacent stall, the famous Lao Zhong Zhong outside the old Thong Chai Medical Institution. In a triumphant voice like a prankish kid, the 67-year-old exclaims in Mandarin, “I know every single thing he put in the sauce! No big deal lah! He was mixing there, and I was eating my duck rice and watching him!”

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Aida Muda

Sambal tumis telor.

Sambal tumis telor.

Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.

I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.

The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Rose B. Rusdi

Sambal Mak Kasek

Sambal Mak Kasek

Rose takes a while to open the metal gate. When she appears from behind a wooden screen, which blocks the view of her flat from the corridor, she’s in tudong and home clothes. The mismatched outfit suggests she has gone to cover herself after I knocked on the door. The moment we’re in the dining area, she takes off her tudong. I remind her that I’ll be taking pictures, so she puts it back on, along with a nice set of baju kurung.

While she’s changing in her room I notice the ingredients on the dining table. A shallot is frozen in a half cut state, while a tablet continues blasting euphoric American-accented commentaries.

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It is Not Just Love that Puts Food on the Table

Because I like to see how food transform from one thing to another, and because I have a bank account that hasn’t seen big deposits for a while, I have been cooking at least six days a week in the past two years. Half of the time I live with my boyfriend and I cook for us. Friends interpret our meals, after seeing their pictures on Instagram, as the “labour of love.”

Yes, love drives me to cook twice a day—lunch and dinner, but love is just a motive. It was my knowledge, values, diligence, prudence, and power that shaped and constructed those meals. To attribute love, and only love, for the transformation of beef to steak is to turn a blind eye to the other capabilities demanded of a home-cook to put food on the table, day after day.

Duck breast, beet salad and potatoes cooked duck fat. #idontlikeitsimple

A photo posted by Sheere Ng (@sheerefrankng) on

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Records and Recordings: Mother’s Wanton Voice Memo

I asked my mother for her wanton recipe via Whatsapp voice memo. Her instructions came in bits and pieces, sometimes hours later, if not, only when I asked about something else and she happened to recall a few more items. I thought these, if documented properly, will make wonderful oral histories about my family. As with any mother’s or grandmother’s recipes, there was no measurement or specific instruction. But the audio clips contain clues about our relationship and about cultural influences. Although she spoke mainly in Mandarin, she peppered her instructions with words like “corn flour” and “kilo,” and the Malay term “agak.” She also said “Q,” which means chewy or springy—a term popularised by the Taiwanese; my mother watches (too much) Taiwanese TV.

I asked my mother what else besides black fungus, water chestnut, and ground meat she put in her wanton.

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How the Exclusion Period drove Chinese American Men into Domestic Kitchens

At the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) Annual Meeting & Conference this month, I presented a paper on the feminization of the early 20th century Chinese men in America, and how it led them to accept the traditionally feminine task of domestic cooking. The following is an adaptation of my five minutes speech. I have added more information for a more complete picture of my research.

I have always wondered why in my family, it is my father and my grandfather who cook. Now, we are not Americans, we are Singaporean Chinese, but like the story of many Chinese in the United States, my grandfather and his kinsmen from South China sought jobs in a foreign land. Women didn’t tag along, so the men cooked for themselves.

I wondered if this was the case for the American Chinese. Indeed, this was what sociologist Rose Hum Lee observed in her 1956 study on the marital relations of Chinese families in San Francisco. She noted that the husbands brought home groceries and taught their wives cooking. This was unthinkable in a patriarchal Chinese society.

Well, the men in America were no typical Chinese. They came to the United States in their youth and reached adulthood without too much womanly concern for their welfare, until the US government loosened its grip on Chinese immigration in 1947. Prior to that, the Chinese were the most hated community in the United States, because of reasons illustrated in the following picture. They were perceived as economic enemies who monopolized the industries, leaving the white men jobless. The results were institutionalized discriminations that I argue attributed to the egalitarian division of labor in Chinese’s marital homes as observed by Lee.

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

In 1882, United States enacted the Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration to the United States. Prior to that, the Chinese community was already a predominantly male society because Chinese female immigrants were thought to be prostitutes, and therefore denied entry. Married Chinese men had little chance to reunite with their wives, while the bachelors could not start a family. Because these men could not demonstrate heterosexual norms, there were doubts on their sexuality. The early Chinese immigrants in the United States sustained the image of lesser men.

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“My kid is the only kid that won’t eat McDonald’s burger…”

susan brassard autism sensory processing disorder

Brassard and her son Johnson

Dalton Johnson eats vegetables only if they are raw. He won’t touch mustard, mayonnaise, and other bottled sauces. Deli meats and American cheese are avoided like a plague.

The 18-year-old keeps this routine not because he’s observing a trending diet, but because he has autism. This gives his mother, Susan Brassard, a caterer and culinary instructor, a tougher cooking job at home than at work.

Because Johnson doesn’t like processed food in general—SpaghettiOs and Macaroni and Cheese that every American kid is supposed to be mad about only drive him mad—Brassard makes his food from scratch. Corned beef, grilled chicken, and his favorite chop suey fly off their home kitchen on a regular basis.

Although, Brassard cheats a little when she’s pressed for time. She adds self-pureed vegetables to store-bought spaghetti sauce to disguise it as homemade. “He doesn’t know,” she said triumphantly.

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Grandma’s Ngoh Hiong

Tuck shop ngoh hiong

In Cantonese opera, men and women spar over love, money, and politics. A similar drama unfolded in my grandparents’ home, but the topic that triggered it was cooking. My grandfather liked to brag about his mastery in cooking. While sitting cross-legged on a single-seat sofa, with a cigarette between his fingers, he cried, “Your grandmother doesn’t know a thing!” Then he let out a chuckle.

My grandmother uttered a feeble “humph,” but she was no docile sheep of a woman as many in her generation were expected to be. One day, when I asked her to teach me how to make ngoh hiong, a Hokkien meat roll that was the mainstay of our dwindling family dinners, she took the opportunity to show her husband of 60 years who called the shots in the family. To demonstrate how she would marinate the ground pork, she got my 86-year-old grandfather walking up and down the kitchen to fetch her ingredients. When he looked uncertainty, she belittled him mercilessly. “Of course you have to wash the bean curd! Where is the oil? What are you looking for? The bean curd skin is right here!”

My grandfather spewed a couple of Hokkien vulgarities—he could cook himself and was the master of vegetable stew and pig’s stomach pepper soup. But he was accommodating, so my grandmother marinated the meat, texturized it with chopped water chestnuts and shallots, and rolled it in bean curd skin. Seven minutes later, the meat roll emerged from the steamer in one piece. Was this a metaphor for their marriage?

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Thanks to Malaysia, Singaporeans have a place where they can relive the past

tanjong pagar railway

In the final days of Tanjong Pagar Railway

“Bhai makes one of the best teas.” Salem S.O. took a sip of his tea and put his cup back onto the table. The rest of the men around the table nodded in unison and picked up their drinks too. It was a humid Tuesday afternoon and the lunch hour crowd had just left. From 11a.m. on, all of the 50 or so tables at M.Hasan Railway Station Canteen were filled with workers from the nearby port and offices. As the lunch hour ended, the crowd had dispersed, leaving behind their plates of leftover curries and noodle soup and customers like Salem and his uncles.They are the people who neither live nor work nearby, but will travel here as often as once a week, ordering multiple rounds of teas and lingering to admire their surroundings. In the evenings and during weekends, they even come with their families — all three generations in tow — as part of their weekly or monthly gatherings.

All the food in this canteen is Halal: no pork, and all other animals except fish are slaughtered according to Islamic law, which explains why most of the customers are Muslims. But the food is only part of the reason why Salem and the others alike keep coming back here. Except for the one or two outstanding dishes, the Malay and Indian cuisines served here, according to them, are common and ordinary in taste. What keeps them attracted to this canteen is that it looks, smells and sounds like the past. The aged stonewalls and exposed water pipes; the train engines’ deafening boom; and the pungent smell of belacan that wafts freely in the air and then clings to people’s clothes — all of them attract the connoisseurs of the old and the forgotten.

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