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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The Search for General Tso and the Chinese American Belonging

Image from The Search for General Tso

Image from The Search for General Tso

Why is Chinese food in America so different from what we see in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? The film, The Search of General Tso, provides an insight to this phenomenon as it traces the history of a dish particularly popular with the Americans — General Tso Chicken. The film brings its audience to Hunan, China where the namesake is from, and to Taiwan to locate the creator of those sweet-spicy deep fried chicken. What at first looks like a superficial quest to ascertain the ownership of a dish turns out to be a bigger story about Chinese American history.

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Milton Glaser’s Chinese Grocery Poster

(image from School of Visual Art's Container List)

(image from School of Visual Art’s Container List)

The items found in New York City’s Chinese groceries today, I can imagine, are baffling to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. What is one to do with a whole packet of duck tongues, black fungus, and dried bean curd sticks? (Answer: braise it, stir-fry it, and stew it, respectively) The very same items in the 1970s, a time when Chinese and all things about them were very much considered exotic, would have been deemed mysterious, or even dangerous, and required a caption to go along for the uninitiated. Perhaps seeing a need there, Milton Glaser, the man behind the overly adapted I love New York logo, created a chart-like poster to guide one through a Chinatown grocery. It explained items like preserved celery cabbage, thousand-year eggs, and even provided instructions for calculating with an abacus.

Commissioned by the International Design Conference, the poster was created in 1972—the same year Nixon went to China after decades of hostility and distrust between the two nations. Then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai hosted a meal in Nixon’s honour and the live broadcast sparked off an explosion of interest in Chinese food. Prior to that, during the Cold War, communist and Chinese were synonymous to the Americans and so was their hatred towards them. Therefore, only in 1972 and the subsequent years would Glaser’s poster be of use to the mainstream Americans.

Boston University’s new Chinese dishes baffle Chinese students

Boston University announced last month that it would add 15 new Chinese dishes to its residential dining menus. But the dishes did not impress the very people the dining services were courting.

In the comments section of the announcement published on BU Today, a news and information website managed by the university’s marketing and communications office, a student named Phyllis wrote, “I am from Beijing, China. The sad thing about this news is that none of the new added food item I have eaten or even heard of when I was in China… It is still American-Chinese food.”

Adding new Chinese dishes was part of BU’s effort to retain the Chinese students in campus housing after the mandatory stay period in freshman year. While 75 percent of American and non-Chinese students return to campus housing in their sophomore year, less than half of Chinese students do so, according to BU Today.

Other BU students from China and Taiwan expressed a similar sentiment. Most found dishes like “Sichuan chili chicken and eggplant, sticky rice”, “pho chicken bowl, ramen noodles” and “soy caramel beef lettuce wrap, glass noodle salad” perplexing. “Caramel beef?” said Jiaan Yu, a sophomore from Nanjing. She frowned and pulled back her head as she read the list of dishes. “Seriously these are Chinese food?”

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