Coronavirus and our new relationship with food

With restaurants off limits, grocery shopping has become fiercely competitive and junk food is making a comeback

To say our relationship with food has changed in this time of coronavirus would be a gross understatement. Changed? More like upended, with rubble strewn everywhere.

Hawker centres, cafes and restaurants - where we used to go for meals casual and special, for kicks, for fun, for celebrations, for company - are out of bounds, for now. We are staying home, bewildered by how our worlds have shrunk in such a short time.

Food shopping has become more than just a mindless chore. It is almost a blood sport, especially since the announcement on Tuesday of more stringent safe distancing measures and the extension of the circuit breaker period until June 1.

At four popular wet markets, entry is restricted to those whose identity card numbers end with an even digit on even-numbered dates of the month. Those with odd-numbered last digits can shop on odd-numbered dates. Malls and supermarkets will also take temperatures and record the particulars of shoppers to aid contact tracing.

Once we get into the stores, there is no guarantee we can find the stuff we want. Husbands wander up and down the aisles, taking videos of the shelves for their wives because they cannot find anything on the shopping list.

"It's sold out. I'm telling you it's sold out. See for yourself," I hear one man mutter in a supermarket.

Ordering groceries online used to be so easy. Now, we have our shopping carts ready to go and we stalk the app for those precious delivery slots, released at odd hours. And when they open up, we pray our fingers are fast enough to secure one before others do.

When we succeed, it feels like winning the lottery.

COMFORT EATING

Junk food, according to The New York Times, has made a comeback as people seek comfort in bewildering times. Even the kale and quinoa set is turning to canned pasta and soup, cheese puffs and ice cream. Stuff they would not have deigned to look at, much less eat, a few months ago.

In Singapore, the anguished response from some quarters to the temporary closure of McDonald's restaurants speaks volumes, as did the long queues for bubble tea when news broke that these businesses will have to shut down to break the circuit.


Crowds at NTUC FairPrice at Square 2 @ Novena on April 3. With the circuit breaker period extended, supermarkets will take temperatures and record shoppers’ particulars to aid contact tracing – and there is no guarantee of shoppers finding what they want, says the writer. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

While queueing to pay at a supermarket, I see the person ahead of me has stuffed his basket with four bags of Spanish potato chips. The display of strawberries and blueberries is untouched by shoppers, including me. I eye the wall of Easter chocolate, strategically placed along the area where people are queueing, and liberate a bag of chocolate eggs.

A week later, I open the bag and eat two eggs before I think to stop myself. I have a fridge full of chocolate, the kind with high cacao content. But what I need is supermarket chocolate, sweet and milky. The bag is empty now.

Pasta and pasta sauces in stores are cleaned out - and have you seen the decimated shelves of instant and cup noodles? When the going gets tough, the tough crave carbs and sugar.

Baked pasta covered with cheese, pizza, prata, chicken curry, laksa, beef noodles and mee pok takeaway from the hawker centre fill my social media feeds.

So, too, do memes about the consequences of comfort eating. One of my favourites contrasts two photos of Michelangelo's sculpture of David. Under the regular one, the caption says "David". In the other photo, David has gone to seed. That caption reads "Covid".

What will we look like when all this is over?

DIY SPIRIT

With kids needing to be fed three times a day - or with time on our hands, for those of us who do not have children - cooking and baking have become more than just weekend hobbies. Those bills for food deliveries add up, if you have not already realised. So there has to be some home cooking involved, unless money is no object.

 
 
 

I marvel at how isolation brings out the inner chef in us. One friend, the chief executive of a large company, is an excellent cook. She has been cooking up such a storm I hope I can #StayHome with her if this happens again. My junior college literature teacher also cooks epic meals. Better yet, she makes delicious things with leftovers.

Nicholas, a Singaporean chef who works in Washington, DC, just made muah chee and is tackling orh nee next. He has been home and teaching his two young children to cook simple things.

Watching his little boy standing on a stool, with a towel around his neck, tossing a wok carefully with his dad standing close by, gives me so much pleasure.

Parents are realising how hungry their kids get and are wondering what on earth to cook next. Now is as good a time as any to build a bigger repertoire of recipes.

Friends who never seemed particularly interested in baking are turning out loaves of artisanal-looking bread. A reader tells me in an e-mail that she is feeding her sourdough starter faithfully.

I spend my weekends baking and find pure bliss doing it. I tune everything out. For those few hours, I am in control in a world that has gone completely out of control. If I follow the recipe, weigh the ingredients, time the mixer as it spins, I will turn out batch after batch of baked goods that crisp and rise like they should.

There is even room for riffing - what if I cut the amount of sugar? What if I add cheese to a sweet muffin? Syncopation is what makes jazz jazz and what makes my baking a little - but not too - wild and unpredictable. Control, no matter how brief, is paramount.

FRESH FIELDS FOR FORAGING

I used to order my groceries online and do a biggish supermarket shop every week. No more. Now, I stop by one of the three wet markets near my home on my way back from my morning walks and buy what I need for the next day or two.

You could say I have rediscovered the pleasure of shopping hyper-locally. Like other people in Singapore, I try to avoid going to supermarkets. The produce in the market always looks fresher and is often cheaper too. Almost everything I need, I can find at the wet market.

 
 
 

Ditto my coffee run. No more coffee chains for me. I get my kopi-o kosong from the hawker centre. I always buy from the same stall. A cup - or rather, a bag - costs 90 cents, a fraction of what an Americano or cappuccino costs. The guy who runs the stall knows me now.

"Kosong?" he asks the third time I patronise the stall.

Before the start of the circuit breaker, a friend told me about an incredible offer from a beef supplier: 1.5kg of ribeye steaks and eight hamburger patties for $100, an excellent deal because of the quality of the Australian beef.

Since then, non-traditional sources for good meat and seafood have surfaced. Steakhouses, yakiniku places, and sushi bars are offering their quality ingredients to regular folk like us.

Some of the deals are amazing, especially when you remember how much you paid for the steak or sea urchin when you dined at the restaurant. Other restaurants are selling their stocks of wine at crazy good prices. When customers cannot dine in, you find ways to get the good stuff to them.

Fishmongers, who used to sell only to wet market stalls and restaurants, are now auctioning off seafood to the public via Facebook Live, garnering tens of thousands of views and selling hundreds of boxes of seafood each time.

I hope they continue doing this after the pandemic. Good produce at a good price - what's not to like?

WEAPONISING FOOD CHOICES

Someone I know is using his $600 from the government to support local food businesses. Restaurateurs tell me about their customers doing the same thing.

Facebook groups have sprung up to help publicise hawker stalls trying to stay afloat. The children of hawkers are spreading the word any way they can.

People are picking and choosing which stalls and restaurants they want to support at this time. So all the restaurants which make their guests feel special, all those hawkers who remember your orders effortlessly, the work they have put in is now paying off.

 
 
 

All of this makes me think about what the restaurant landscape here will look like when this is over.

Will people be so used to ordering in that they don't want to go to restaurants anymore? When home cooks can buy quality produce to cook at home, if they can order restaurant-quality food easily, is there a need to go out?

Which restaurants will be left standing? From the Restaurant Association of Singapore, we know profit margins in the business are slim: 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent is the estimate. What this says is that many restaurants are not viable and they are unlikely to survive a crisis. Yet, new restaurants open all the time. And, despite the current situation, more are expected to launch later this year.

Nobody knows what diners will do when there is no need to hunker down any more.

Will they return in droves to their favourite restaurants or check out new ones? Will they tighten their belts because of the global recession? Will we still have jobs to support our restaurant habit?

It will be a brave new world for everyone in the food industry and everyone who loves to eat. Like all new relationships, it is going to be complicated.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'Coronavirus and our new relationship with food'. Subscribe