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.

Finding Singapore in Granolas and Pizzas

Eastern Granola

Eating pizzas and pastas in between plates of chicken rice and nasi lemak is part of a typical Singaporean diet. For some in Singapore, this mixed cultural diet has even become imaginations of a new national cuisine.

Nasi lemak granola, bak kut teh pulled pork salad and hebi hiam pizzas are amongst the foods created by young entrepreneurs over the last two years. Growing up eating food from their own heritage as well as cuisines from elsewhere has informed their own formulae for cooking: combining local flavours with international food ways.

Granola was the first thing that came to mind when Chin Hui Wen wanted to produce food for sale. She instinctively gave this American snack a Singaporean twist as she was targeting the local market.

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We are the Curry Puffs and Laksa We Eat

Cooking curry puffs in boston

Every Friday, at a mosque in Roxbury, men and women covered in thawb and hijab patiently stand in line for a taste of Singapore cooked up by Madam Saadiah Hassan. Since moving to Boston three years ago, the Singaporean has been running the mosque’s café to pass her time, turning it into an informal gateway to the country where the fifty-something used to sell the very same delicacies in a food court.

Her standard staple for Singaporeans has become curious flavours for the mosque-goers who once knew little about Singapore. But Saadiah’s culinary prowess prompted them to find out more. “They tell me ‘You know mama I read about Singapore’,” chirped the lady who is popularly addressed as ‘mama’ here. “They say Singapore expensive, Singapore clean, Singapore no chewing gum.”

Saadiah is just one of many overseas Singaporeans who have created their own home outside of home through food. By cooking dishes from their home country for the locals, these Singaporeans seek to find a sense of belonging and be recognised by where they come from.

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Hawkers Sold Food in Schools During the 1950s

A St. Anthony’s Girls’ School teacher in 1950 told The Straits Times she could “never concede to the provision of hawker food stalls in school premises” and urged parents to give their children nourishing food during recess instead [1].

Her comment will raise questions among Singaporeans today, especially those who went to school after the 1950s. Was there no school tuckshop to sell food to the pupils? Her open resistance to hawker food suggests it was not unusual to find them in school premises.

The same report interviewed three schools which permitted hawkers to trade within their compounds indeed. Chong Hock Girls’ School at Telok Ayer Street conceded that “specially approved hawkers” were selling seven to eight varieties of food to their pupils. Armenian Street Chinese School opened its gate to hawkers, mainly to prevent children from “going outside and getting involved in accidents”. Gan Eng Seng School had no complaints about the hygiene of the hawkers selling popiah, sausage and “roja” to its students, but it was annoyed by “the noise they caused”.

Gan Eng Seng tuckshop in 1986. The stalls were not built into the tuckshop, unlike today's school canteens. Could this evolved from itinerant hawker stalls?

Gan Eng Seng tuckshop in 1986. The stalls were not built into the tuckshop, unlike today’s school canteens. Could this have evolved from itinerant hawker stalls? (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

By 1954, “all Singapore schools give concessions to one or more hawkers to trade in their grounds on payment of a small rent”. This was brought to light in a news report addressing concerns that the hawkers at Bedok Girls’ School were over-charging for snacks [2]. The story also revealed that the school’s tuckshop sold only biscuits and tea.

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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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Singapore’s Kelong Boleh?

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) wants to improve Singapore’s food self-sufficiency. There are more than 100 fish farms in Singapore producing 8 per cent of our total fish consumption. The agency is helping these farms boost their productivity so that their market share can increase to 15 per cent.

I speak to Bryan of Ah Hua Kelong at their coastal farm in Lorong Halus jetty to find out if they are ready to increase production, and how they are dealing with the plankton blooms, the competitive import prices and their own limited output.

This 10-year-old kelong set up by two army friends with a fishing enthusiast is about 4 acres. The cages that carry fishes below 500 grams each are sheltered because smaller fishes are more vulnerable to drastic changes in weather.

This 10-year-old kelong set up by two army friends and a fishing enthusiast is about 4 acres. The farm rears mainly barramundi, pearl grouper and mussels. The cages in the picture are sheltered because the fishes kept inside are under 500 grams each and are more vulnerable to weather changes.

Barramundi, also known as Asian sea bass. The kelong used to sell mainly to the restaurants, but their demand for fishes between the narrow range of 900 grams to 1.1 kilograms is hard to meet, says Bryan, given how fishes grow at different speed despite the same rearing conditions. Today, Ah Hua is one of the few fish farms that offer free home deliveries to boost their B2C sales.

The kelong used to sell mainly to the restaurants, but their specific request for fishes between the narrow range of 900 grams to 1.1 kilograms is hard to meet, says Bryan. Fishes grow at different rates even in the same rearing conditions. Since last year, Ah Hua offers free home deliveries to boost their B2C sales.

They catch wild flower and mud crabs too. Even then, the seafood variety they offer is limited compared to the traditional wet markets where the imports are sold.

They also catch flower and mud crabs from the wild. Even then, their varieties are far from the range of imported seafood. Singaporean consumers who have been spoiled for choices are more likely to buy from the markets, where the entire range of available seafood are sold. The ideal scenario is if the consumers prioritise local supplies, and buy from amongst the imports whatever that is not available from the local farms.

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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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Street food in Singapore offers spicy, pungent seafood

Jb Ah Meng

Customers wait at tables 30 minutes before JB Ah Meng Kitchen opens.

SINGAPORE — Fish, meats, and even fruits are drenched in a riot of flavors wherever you eat in Singapore. Spicy, sour, and pungent tastes, like sisters, may fight with one another, but they can also be so perfect together.

This island city-state of more than 5 million people, with an economy driven mainly by financial services, has a tiny aquaculture industry but a great variety of affordable crustaceans imported from Indonesia, Thailand, even Norway. Serving raw or simply boiled-and-chilled seafood, as many restaurants in the United States do, demands pricier catches and particularly stringent handling practices. So food hawkers…

Continue reading my Boston Globe story here…

Singapore Noodles is “a cross-cultural mutated freak of nature”

Singapore Noodles is popular, but whether it is Asian, fusion, or a cross-cultural mutated freak of nature, no one knows for sure. With little information to offer, the media place their bets on this mystery. They get away with such shoddy journalism, partly because the noodles needs little introduction. Anyone who has lived in Hong Kong, or has depended on take-outs in the UK, the US, and Australia, is no stranger to the bright yellow, curry-laden noodles.

But when studied all together, the print, television (online), and blogs paints a telling picture of the dish. I analyse key phrases in the first 80 Singapore Noodles recipes that Google generates based on the keywords “Singapore noodles recipe,” and here is what I found:

Popular in the West, Except Hong Kong

The media say it’s “famous” and “popular,” but is careful to set the scope within which this statement holds water. Hong Kong stands out as the only Asian city where Singapore Noodles is said to be prevalent. Whether it is Hong Kong or Australia, such specifications suggest that the writers, and possibly the men in the street of each city, are unaware of their common love for the noodles.

The media also tend to specify the food categories — Chinese take-out or Chinese American restaurants— under which this dish is a favourite, hinting at a different assessment should it be taken out of its usual contexts.

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