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…

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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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Out with the Old, In with the New-Old

rebel-with-a-course

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.

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Caucasians, Mostly Women, Love Singapore Noodles

Instagram, the public platform for sharing pictorial details of one’s life, and a place to show off financial and social clout through food pictures, is a perfect source for sussing out who are the people and why they are eating Singapore Noodles. To date, there are over 5000 images hash-tagged “Singaporenoodles.” Even though the application is not an accurate representation of the larger real world, the sample size is sufficient to reveal patterns of consumption. Here are my observations:

Mostly Caucasians

An estimated 80 percent of those who hash-tagged “Singaporenoodles” are Caucasians. Race is important here because it gives us an idea of where this dish has travelled to and to whom it appeals. It looks like the majority of those who enjoy this noodles are not the Asian immigrants but the locals in the Western countries. Another way to explain this is that the Caucasians are more likely to find the noodles Instagram-worthy, because eating Asian, a cuisine outside their comfort zone, suggests that they are adventurous and sophisticated.

singapore-noodles-oriental

Only this user knows how carrots and peas could be oriental. Her choice of words suggests that she is exploring an Otherness through her food.

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Finding Mee Pok Tah and the Singapore Identity in New York City

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

Cambodian Noodles from Bo Ky Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, and its pretty legit Teochew braised duck.

A middle-aged server with harsh facial features turned his gaze upon me. I held up the menu to signal him to back off, while I scanned it the fourth time for a sign of familiarity in the unfamiliar “Cambodian rice noodle or egg noodle soup.”

Fellow Singaporeans on Yelp, an online review site, told about a taste of home that could be coaxed out of this seemingly foreign dish. The noodles of a Sino-Cambodian restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown, said Natalie L., was “secretly mee pok.” One need only ask for the linguine-like egg noodles, and the soup to be served separately, not forgetting to add the chilli sauce provided on every table, to create the elusive (in New York City and some say United States) mee pok tah.

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Communism may have brought Singapore Noodles to the U.S.

Chris Cheung remembered Singapore Noodles from the 1980s when it was popular amongst the Chinese Americans in New York City. Like beef chow fun (broad and flat rice noodles) and chow mein (wheat noodles), Singapore Noodles was an economical dish that people liked to order with dim sum. It was cheap, flavourful, and it came in portions big enough to feed a group. “It was a favourite order when you go to Chinatown,” said Chris, who grew up in the neighbourhood and is now a chef himself. He is familiar enough with the Chinese food scene to have brought Anthony Bourdain and the No Reservations crew to some of his favourite restaurants in the city.

It was typical of a Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown to serve Singapore Noodles. Unlike the small eateries that catered traditional foods like pan-fried butter fish and meat patty with salted egg (yuk pang) for the Taishanese working men, Chris explained, the Cantonese establishments tended to also cater for customers from outside the community. These businesses could be distinguished by their dim sum, barbecued meats, and Chinese American creations such as General Tso Chicken and egg rolls. He was careful to add that the Cantonese restaurants were mostly owned by the Chinese immigrants who had travelled to New York by route of Hong Kong.

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Not the Usual Food Magazines

These magazines show that recipes need not come from famous chefs to command interest, or that an invitation to think about food doesn’t necessarily mean to think about eating it. It was magazines like these that piqued my interest in food writing — how boring to describe tastes, and what a challenge to illuminate cultures with the food people eat! Some of the topics are so niche that you wonder how the magazines survive. A few have indeed closed shop, but I hope the others will beat the odds, for they expand our imaginations of what food can mean. It can be a weapon to protest against status quo, it can be an entry point to discuss inequalities, or it can be just food, ordinary in taste but rich in memories.

Put An Egg On It

Image from Put An Egg On It

Image from Put An Egg On It

Now in it’s ninth issue, this booklet-magazine contains short pieces of food memoirs. These are stories of people whom the conventional food magazines consider as the nobodies — the ordinary men on the street — but the emotions in each piece are so raw and so riverting. While there may be a couple of heart-wrenching read, be prepared for a good laugh at some of the hilarious food memories.

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How a Chef Turns Discards into Family Meals

Every day at about 4 pm, the chef deviates from the list of “projects” he needs to complete for service, and mixes ingredients that don’t belong together according to his menu. He scoops up the discards on the cutting boards before they get tossed into the bin, and what doesn’t end up as trash becomes food for his staff at the restaurant. These foods are called the “family meal,” or just “family” at Fung Tu, the Chinese American restaurant where I stage. One hour before service starts at 6pm, the front- and back-of-the-house help themselves to the food. For most of the cooks in the restaurant, including the chef Jonathan Wu, family is their first, and sometimes the only meal of the day. If they are not done prepping for service, they will eat while whipping mayonnaise, or wrapping egg rolls.

Not every ingredient for family comes from scraps. Chef stocks up bucatini pasta, chickpeas, and sweet Italian sausages specifically for family, because, he tells me matter-of-factly, they have longer shelf life. But his main aim is to minimise food waste, so he works mostly with the leftovers, the despised animal parts, and the sad-looking vegetables. Bak choy is ever present because only half the batch has the perfect curves to be customer-worthy. On Tuesdays, the first working day of the week, there is always leftover chicken from the Sunday-only menu. Since family corresponds to what the restaurant serves its customers, when a new season arrives, or on special days like the Jewish Passover, the members of the family find new foods in their plates too.

Chef was peeling prawns at noon. After that he made a stock out of the shells and cooked sweet Italian sausages in it, along with shallots, green and red peppers, the outermost, imperfect layers of Brussels sprouts, and unwanted coriander stems from which I had plucked nice green leaves for garnishing. Everything went on top of a bowl of corn grits.

Chef was peeling prawns at noon. After that he made a stock out of the shells and cooked sweet Italian sausages in it, along with shallots, green and red peppers, the outermost, imperfect layers of Brussels sprouts, and unwanted coriander stems from which I had plucked nice green leaves for garnishing. All went on top of a bowl of corn grits.

14/3: Tortilla with mashed chorizo sausage, steamed potatoes, and kale stems that are too thick for Stir-Fried Side Greens.

Tortilla with mashed chorizo sausage, steamed potatoes, and kale stems too thick for “Stir-Fried Side Greens.”

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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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