Singaporeans overseas: Cooking up a storm of hawker food memories

For Singaporeans living abroad, cooking their favourite hawker dishes is a way to feel closer to home

When Ms Pamelia Chia first moved to Melbourne with her husband in April this year, the 27-year-old did not think she would be making Singaporean dishes.

Melbourne's farmers markets overflowed with fresh ingredients such as beets, savoy cabbage and brussel sprouts sold by the stalk and the former cook at Candlenut restaurant wanted to make full use of the local produce.

But when homesickness eventually set in, Ms Chia decided to try making Hokkien mee, a favourite dish of hers and her husband's.

Her husband proclaimed that it made him feel like he was at a hawker centre.

The couple are among a growing number of Singaporeans who have chosen to live or work abroad in the past 10 years.

There were 214,700 overseas Singaporeans last year, compared with 172,000 in 2007.

Dr Kelvin Low, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore whose research interests include food, says the acts of cooking and eating together are linked to people's memories of home when they are abroad.

He adds: "These important gastronomic acts can engender nostalgic sentiments for home and instil a sense of belonging."

SLOW COOKING

Recreating hawker dishes far away from home can be daunting because many dishes are labour intensive and time-consuming to prepare.

For instance, the broth for Hokkien mee or prawn noodle soup requires prawn shells and pork bones to be simmered for hours.

Because of this, Ms Jolene Sng-Ong, who moved to Houston, Texas, in 2010 for her husband's job as a crude oil trading manager, prepares prawn noodle soup only occasionally.

 
 

When she does, the 37-year-old organises her husband and two children in a production line to assemble various ingredients such as prawns, fish cakes, kangkong and pork ribs.

Ms Sng-Ong, a homemaker, says: "Making prawn noodles looks so quick and easy at the hawker centre. You place an order and in a matter of minutes, you'll get your meal. But at home, I had to cook up a storm to make that same meal."

Ms Chia, who currently works as a cook at the Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne, says: "Our hawkers do such a good job that sometimes there's apprehension when I want to make dishes at home.

"For Singaporeans, food is so big for us that we are afraid home recipes will not measure up. The standards are so high."

She adds: "Every time I cook a hawker dish at home, my respect for hawkers grows.

"They prepare these laborious stocks, broths and sambals every day yet earn so little. I don't see how anyone can complain about slight price hikes when the effort behind these dishes is so immense."

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

Hawker food is not just difficult to cook, sometimes there is not even a proper recipe to follow.

When Ms Sng-Ong wanted to make ang ku kueh for her husband's birthday, all she had to go on was a voice recording of her godmother reciting the ingredients and instructions in Cantonese, which her god sister sent via text message.

Her godmother did not include measurements for the ingredients, as her recipe was based on instinct.

After multiple rounds of trial and error, Ms Sng-Ong finally managed to recreate the recipe, and recorded the steps and measurements on her blog.

She says: "It dawned on me that no one else in the family really knew how to make the dishes that my godmother and my third grandaunt cook. So, I wanted to preserve these traditional recipes in writing and keep our heritage alive."

Ms Lee Shu Han, 27, an advertising strategist who lives in London, took it a step further when she parlayed the Singaporean and South-east Asian recipes on her blog, into a cookbook titled Chicken And Rice.

It was published in 2016 by Penguin Books.

Ms Lee, who picked up Singaporean recipes through a combination of Skype calls with her mother, cookbooks and blogs, says: "I would like to think that I'm helping other Singaporeans who are finding their way in the kitchen after being spoiled by their mothers or the amazing hawkers of Singapore for years.

"This is especially so for those who might have moved abroad and are learning to recreate flavours from home with the limitations of a foreign larder."

SHARING PLATES

For those living abroad, cooking Singaporean dishes is often a way to spark friendships and conversations.

Ms Lee, who moved to London in 2009 to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins, says: "When I first moved here, food was my way of making friends in this strange new land.

"Sharing the food I grew up with was the best sort of introduction I could give to people abroad - because food is so rooted in Singaporean culture."

Ms Lee, who enjoys cooking for a crowd, holds casual dinner parties about once a week. She has also hosted about eight Sunday brunches, serving dishes such as congee, siew yoke (crispy roast pork), chicken rice and Teochew braised duck.

And she doesn't just tell her friends about local food, she ropes them in on the cooking process too. While visiting a friend's family in the Netherlands last Christmas, she taught them how to make ayam panggang and wonton.

She says: "The messy, intimate process of cooking throws up childhood memories and evokes warm feelings of home, even as I'm doing this in a different country, with different people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 02, 2018, with the headline 'Cooking up a storm of memories'. Print Edition | Subscribe