The decline of home cooking

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2013

One of the biggest responsibilities that befall a parent, from the moment your young 'uns learn the meanings of the words "family" and "home", is to create the little memories and rituals associated with the domestic sanctum.

Food plays a huge part in this, and not just the festive fare associated with traditional holidays, but also the nightly meal around the dinner table.

My own housewife mother was not the world's best cook. She was a stickler for cleanliness and oil-spattered stoves alarmed her. But my sister and I remember her dinner staples: tau yu bak - pork braised in a sticky, garlicky dark soya sauce - and chicken soup sweetened with Narcissus brand canned button mushrooms.

Then there was my late mother-in-law, who brought up four children and whipped up piping hot meals every day. She could also rustle up homemade cakes and biscuits, plus a steady supply of herbal soups and "cooling" drinks to ward off coughs and other ailments.

Some of the best home-cooked dishes may never be found in restaurants, their ingredients too unassuming to be put on a menu with a price attached. Such simplicity is deceptive, though.

Humble dishes of my mother- in-law that my husband has reproduced with varying success include salt-marinated chicken - which, when steamed, is so wonderfully tender and tasty that it is hard to believe only salt crystals were used to flavour it - and steamed egg. You can tart up the egg mixture with slivers of salted and century eggs, but somehow it is difficult to nail that delicacy of flavour and silken yet firm texture.

So, as working parents, what did we do when it came to our children, now aged two and six months, but who will one day be shovelling all manner of food into their mouths like adults?

We copped out, like many other Singaporeans. To fix our meals, we hired a live-in Filipino helper who, before she started working for us six months ago, had never cooked Chinese food in her life.

My husband - the alpha cook who still powers through the kitchen on weekends - taught her everything he knew. She learnt how to steam fish Cantonese-style, garnished with spring onions. A mixture of hot oil and soya sauce is drizzled over the fish just before serving to uncork the flavour of the spring onions without overcooking them - the Cantonese are very finicky about this - and to add a nutty flavour to the dish.

She mastered simple nasi lemak, cooking rice with coconut milk and a pinch of salt in a rice cooker, and frying up fish, egg and other ingredients to eat with bottled sambal chilli. But there have also been duds, as is to be expected from someone who has no clue how local food should taste. Filipino food is typically heavier, with generous lashings of oil and sauce. So her stir-fried vegetables are sometimes soggy and drenched in gravy, her cubes of claypot beancurd - another ingredient she had not previously cooked with - over-fried and withered.

It has occurred to me that my children are not going to have the same experience - or standards - of home cooking that my husband and I have. One day, our helper will return to the Philippines, to be replaced by another who may be less adept. Or, as a family, we will make do with takeout food from nearby hawker centres and coffee shops.

Among my peers, I know of no one who takes up the wok and spatula every day - not even stay-at-home mums.

In compact Singapore where cheap food is readily available, particularly in the HDB heartland, it is actually more expensive to cook meals yourself unless you do it regularly and have at least three or four people in your household. So most families eat out, buy cooked food or order catered meals delivered to their homes.

The result is that for a so-called nation of foodies, we are food consumers rather than producers. Last week, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan sounded the alarm on a known reality, that the rich hawker heritage is in danger of vanishing because young Singaporeans are not joining the trade. How can they, when they grow up not seeing their parents cook, not picking up a knife or ladle and lacking the skills to produce a decent meal?

Home-cooked dishes have a different character and flavour from hawker fare, and some of these have already passed into history.

While thumbing through his faded 1970s copy of Mrs Lee's Cookbook - one of the bibles of Straits Chinese cooking - my Peranakan dad was jolted by the realisation that he had not eaten Rebong Char ever since his own mother died more than 30 years ago. It is a homespun dish of bamboo shoots, prawns and pork, stir-fried in a thin, fragrant gravy of prawn stock, garlic and salted soyabean (taucheo). I myself have not heard of or tasted it, since it is not found in Peranakan restaurants today.

With the advent of processed foods, the decline of home cooking is a global trend, though accelerating in some cultures more than others. In Japan, for example, mothers still get up at the crack of dawn to prepare bento box lunches for their husbands and children to take to work and school.

Some may attribute this decline to the advent of feminism and women going out to work, but then again, men have proven themselves equally adept in the kitchen, with male celebrity chefs probably outnumbering their female counterparts.

Rather, I think it is because two great myths have taken hold of the contemporary consciousness - that preparing a meal from scratch takes a lot of time, and that bringing up children requires tremendous investment on the part of parents.

Food journalist and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan observed that TV cooking shows do not inspire actual effort, only vicarious pleasure on the part of viewers. The shows "make cooking look difficult, because everything is so fast, and there's always a ticking clock", he told food journal Lucky Peach recently.

Correspondingly, mums and dads are more likely to spend time trying to motivate, teach or engage their children, rather than cooking for the family, whereas three decades ago, the mother would be slaving over a hot stove and leaving a school-going child to his own devices.

Pollan, a champion of home cooking as a means of reducing the huge carbon footprint of processed foods, thinks the solution is to bring communality back into cooking - and get husbands, wives and children all cooking together.

He has a point. Wild horses could not drag me into the kitchen every day - I am just not that good at it - but from time to time, I do want to bake and cook with my children, turning the toy kitchen set my two-year-old daughter loves into the real thing a few years down the road.

Perhaps then, their memories of home and family will not just revolve around being served, but actually having taken part in creating a sumptuous spread.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2013

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