Rebel With A Course reads like an ah chek regaling with colourful tales of the good old days prior to the hawker centres and HDBs. Except, Queen’s English rolls off the author’s, Damian D’Silva’s tongue, and the slightest details that usually escape one’s mind embellish his stories — “The wet market had two rows of food stalls at the front, selling a host of dishes from the different Chinese dialect groups. There was you char kway, lor mee, yong tau foo, chwee kueh, and our favourite, mee pok tah.” I am captivated and almost convinced that the past was better than the present. Perhaps, heritage dishes, like he says, should be preserved the way it was.
But I’m afraid D’Silva and the many else of his generation are the only ones who truly appreciate heritage dishes. They have had their fair share from the street peddlers, or have been forced to help cooking some at home. Pleasant or not, these experiences in their formative years shaped their preferences. Today, where the flavours of the past are no more, they yearn for the old and lambast the new.
Preserving heritage dishes becomes a tricky business, because the subsequent generations have developed a taste for what D’Silva calls the “bastardised version.” While hawker centre fare are more prominent in their lives, the bygone foods live only in the memories of an older person. They are murky, unattainable, thus, always beckoning envious “likes” should their pictures occasionally appear on one’s Facebook feed.
If by any chance the new generation finds their way to a hawker adhering to old methods of cooking, or they travel to Malaysia where more of such person exist, it remains a question as to whether they would appreciate the food in its previous, supposedly better life form.
I grew up eating factory-made muah chee and had liked its firm and chewy texture. A few years back my ex-boss, a man also belonging to an earlier generation, proudly introduced me to a hawker believed to be the last man making muah chee by hand. I had wanted to like it, so that I can claim connoisseurship of hawker culture.
But the handmade muah chee was limp and lifeless in texture. It was not what I had indulged my schoolgirl-self in, along with ramly burgers and Taiwanese sausages from the pasar malams.
Most Singaporeans today prefer crispy to the gooey or luak. They also like their wanton mee with chilli sauce, instead of just soy sauce, lard, and broth. In both cases the latter is traditional. Evidently, staying traditional doesn’t guarantee popularity across generations. Otherwise, the versions we know today wouldn’t have become the norm.
Since heritage foods are irrelevant to the younger generations, for whom are we preserving them?
Practicing traditions builds a community and perpetuates one’s identity; it is important that they are handed down. But it is impossible to replicate wholesale. All traditions practiced today are interpretations of the past, with modifications to suit the present. If we had expected all sambal to be prepared with a mortar and pestle, the condiment would not be as ubiquitous as it is today.
Traditions have to change for them to stick around for a long time, so instead of lamenting the inevitable, facilitating it can ensure that the outcomes stay culturally relevant.
D’ Silva also emphasised the importance of methodical cooking. I think heritage can be more meaningfully preserved in terms of methods than dishes. This is so that when creativity strikes, chefs and cooks will look within, instead of looking out, to the French, the Japanese, or the modernists, as they do now, for different approaches to familiar foods.
In passing on traditions, some will be lost. The best we can do is to make sure not all will.