“Can you cook curry?” and other stories.

It would really be an understatement to say that I originate from a foodie’s paradise. You want it, we got it.

So, when the Singapore JETs were leaving for Japan, many were exchanging recipies and carrying a whole lot of ingredients and spices and lamenting how much they’d be missing the Chicken Rice and Mee Goreng.

For me though, I felt a huge disconnect. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home food just as much as the next person…but I’m a lot less sentimental. As I left Singapore, I never once thought “Damn I’m gonna miss the food”. At most it was a “Damn, I’m gonna have to cook for myself!” I occasionally wonder if there are people who can relate with this (I’m sure there are…I mean, the world is huge).

I came to accept very early on that I was far from being the cook that my mom and grandmother are. So I’d make pasta or bake or find stuff online and try it out…or on some occasions, improvise stuff up. And it’s not like I make BAD food…but I’m far from knowing complicated recipies that take 2 days to prepare, at the tip of my fingers. I’m even further from being able to host parties and prepare everything from scratch. That’s the kind of mom and grandmother I grew up with and I have a HUGE amount of love and respect for these 2 women…but what they do requires SO much time, patience, energy and practice.

The summer before I first arrived in Japan, I actually visited India for a bit and tried to learn how to make some decent Indian food…and I did! I could make Chappatis and a decent Channa Masala (I actually talked about this in a previous post somewhere)…and then I forgot how to make it. :/  I know how this makes me sound like a terrible representative of my own culture, etc…I’ve been chastised enough (being a woman has NOT been helpful in this case)…but just hear me out on this.

Can you make curry?
I’ve lost count the number of times people ask me if I can make curry. What curry? Cuz if you mean the Japanese type that requires me to plop the roux on my veggies, I’m amazing at it. Indian curry tho…I can MAAAYBE manage 2 or 3 out of the HUNDREDS that exist. Indian food is complicated. Till maybe last month, I had no idea you could add cashewnuts into curry and blend it all into a smooth paste. I’d watched mom do it…vaguely…but never really registered it.

There’s a whole world of spices and curry powders. Depending on what is added and when it’s added and the amount added, the resulting curry would be completely different. So can you really blame me for forgetting? I’ve made enough bad curries to be weary of curry making. I miss one step, and suddenly I’m stuck with a watery, overly-spicy, meh-looking…mix of things in a pot. And while I’m all for learning from my failures, it’s also incredibly draining and time-consuming.

Mind: All that cooking’s fine and well, till the cleaning part happens.

If you read my other posts, you’d know that my schedule is just insane. This means, any kind of cooking leads to piled up pots and pans in the sink for a WEEK. Indian cooking requires a lot more than one pot. So the washing and smells add up. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

What Singaporean food do you miss?
And don’t get me started on what I miss about Singaporean food. Because, honestly, the thing I miss the most is the availability of GOOD vegetarian salads, sandwich, wraps and soups. A good salad, sandwich, wrap or soup should be a filling and satisfying meal. A good mix of fresh crunchy vegetables with some tofu or veg patty, topped off with a good dressing….mmm. That or a hot bowl of soup with some bread on the side on a rainy day.  Being vegetarian in Japan isn’t impossible, but it definately decreases all my sammich-on-the-go options.

I’m unsure about the rest of Japan, but where I’ve been posted, there are no vegetarian sandwich options in the conveniences stores  and Starbucks is a hit or miss thing depending on the seasonal offerings. We have Doutor which makes fresh sandwiches but I need to tell them not to put in the non-veg stuff and still pay the same price with no extra veggies to compensate the lack of non-veg.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not complaining when I say all this. I knew what I was getting myself into when I came to Japan. But the point I’m trying to make (long winded as it may be) is that I miss my sandwiches more than any particular Singaporean food and I have problems articulating that to people (both Singaporean and non-Singaporean) because of the reactions I get to that statement. It makes me look like a terrible cultural embassador of both my country AND my culture.

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WHAT IS THERE NOT TO LIKE ABOUT A SOY PATTY BURGER?!?

 

What should I eat in Singapore?
And then the famous: What should I eat if I go to Singapore?
I really struggle on this one because truth be told, it’s everything. You can’t possibly understand Singaporean food culture by eating JUST roti prata or laksa. Singapore is complex because of it’s roots in trade and it’s diverse population of about 5.5million people.

How to answer liddat?
(Singaporean English for: How am I to answer in a situation like that?)
I’ve dealt with this by telling people to visit food courts or hawker centers in Singapore. That’s where they’re going to find all that diversity at very cheap prices. I try to explain why it’s not as easy as telling a foreigner in Japan to eat Sushi. So far, the response to that answer has been good.

But, I mean, I TRY…

I can’t however be accused of not trying. I have a lot of love for a South-East Asian flavoring called Pandan. It’s a type of leaf that’s boiled for its’ essence and the essence/extract is added to cakes, jellies, jams, etc. The taste is really unique and whenever people ask me if I want/need anything from Singapore, I usually ask for Pandan essence.

So, recently, when my school asked me to appear on a TV programme in collaboration with the broadcasting club, I was all for it. They asked me if I could do anything “Singaporean”…so I offered to show them how to make Pandan Agar Agar Jelly. Litterally, it’s the ONLY Singaporean dish I can make with confidence because of how easy it is…and it has Pandan.

I’ll add the link in here so you can take a look, but it’s all in Japanese and you’ll have to skip a bunch of other stuff to see me make the jelly (or you could just watch the whole thing!):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBbctAZZMEc

So…
There’s so much pressure to live up to your culture or country’s image…people always want to know about Singapore and Indian food culture. But, as harsh as this sounds, it feels very performative for me. Performative because, in that instant, I’m being expected to be a role-model Singaporean-Indian. In that instant, I’m being expected to be a cultural showcase of food even if there’s no ill-intention behind the questions.

I stand on a fine balance. I don’t want to be rude and tell people that all I need/want in life is some good tea and some sandwich/salad/soup/thing. At the same time, I don’t want to be the Singapore Tourism Board. I don’t enjoy giving model answers that I don’t believe in. So I give lengthy answers that satisfy both parties. I talk about the culture behind the diverse food culture I come from and explain why it’s so hard for me to give travel guide answers to them.

For most part, it’s been good.

 

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