A Sambal Stain On A White Shirt
“There is no love sincerer than the love for food.” – George Bernard Shaw
Mr Shaw was describing Singaporeans. In Singapore, we live through food. Meet-ups with friends often involve a meal; “have you eaten?” is our way of showing we care; we defend our hawker centres with a raging passion; we might not recall what our partner was wearing on the first date but we definitely recall where and what we ate.
In Singapore, we grow through food. As human beings, our personal growth and identity formation stem from memories. When your memories are intrinsically anchored in food, every meal becomes an inevitable opportunity for a life lesson.
Nearly 10 years after the divorce, mama would suddenly stop eating her carbonara spaghetti in our kitchen. She would look at me with a mix of shame, anguish and pain. There was a smudge of carbonara sauce on her lip; I wanted to help her wipe it away. Her bottom lip quivered and curled, in a silent rebellion against everything life dealt her. Over my plate of sticky pasta that had gone cold, I looked at my mother and saw myself. How is it that you can prepare for something like war, but not for the moment you witness your parent fall apart in front of you? People talk about adulthood like it’s dictated by a specific age, but it isn’t. The moment everything you once thought unquestionable breaks down will be the moment you grow up. And you keep doing it for as many moments as there are.
It wasn’t always this way, but most days I struggle to recall a happy memory involving both my parents. That is why I am fiercely protective of this one: Square Mee Day. Square mee is our family’s code for mee hoon kuay (handmade noodles that are usually square pieces). My parents coined the term when I was around five. Every Sunday, we’d go to the nearby kopitiam and each order a bowl. I would slurp up the slippery noodles together with the fried shallots and ikan bilis, always leaving my favourite egg yolk and chunky pieces of minced pork till the end to be dipped in vinegar and chilli. Gulping down the steaming broth would result in a vague light-headedness, partly from the post-lunch food coma, partly from the joy of spending time with my parents. Mee hoon kuay is a deceiving dish; it looks simple, but a perfect bowl would need the right amount of each ingredient. Marriage and contentment are the same – it always looks easy to keep, until you have it.
“Eh, I go buy 50-cent curry puff first,” I would chirp to my friends after PE lessons in secondary school, as they headed back to class. Running around the school field would create an undeniable hunger for the cheap potato-filled pastries from the snacks stall. With wet hair plastered to my forehead and the stark awareness that eating one (or two, sometimes three) of these after a PE lesson was rather ironic, I willingly fished out several coins from my PE shorts. Standing amidst the lingering stench of sweat and adolescence in the school canteen, while devouring the most exquisite blend of potato and chicken in my hands, I would catch a glimpse of contentment and spend the rest of my life trying to find it again.
I was 20 when I did – at a bus stop in Jurong East with a very special boy. We each had a bottle of Polka milk tea, and our comfortable silence provided the best soundtrack to the passing cars and people. I slipped my fingers in between his and we stole sideways glances before looking away quickly, but not quick enough for us to miss the crooked smile on each other’s faces. My chest felt like it would explode from the butterflies that had travelled up from my stomach. We were 20, but in that moment, I could’ve sworn I was 15 again.
At 22, he bought me a box of grapes (green and seedless) when I got robbed of my phone. “Nah, I hope you feel better,” he said, as he sheepishly handed it to me and gave me a hug. Which idiot thinks a box of grapes, albeit presented with utmost sincerity, makes up for the loss of a $500 phone? Clearly, the two of us. We might have been friends for six years before that, but I never realised how much he understood my heart till that day.
One night when I was seven, I stared at the hot stove after my dad took off the bubbling pot of maggi mee. I was transfixed by the curiosity of how it would feel, so I reached out a finger. The pain was so sudden and sharp, that the tears came without warning. I ran the burn under cold water and immediately felt better. Later on, whenever someone took my heart and ran a knife through its arteries, I would spend hours in the shower and come out a new person, the top layer of skin having peeled away. In a few months, I would regrow a thicker layer on the most important places, like my heart, just like in a few minutes, I would gleefully devour the bowl of soggy noodles. Like nothing had ever happened.
One day, you are in a supermarket when you’re blindsided by the smell of sushi, which reminds you of your ex, and suddenly you don’t know what to do with your hands. Then it’s 4pm and you’re eating milo powder by the spoonful when you choke on the memory of your late father scolding you for making a mess. And every time you order chicken rice, you wonder if you’ll ever stop remembering the first time you experienced real fear when you realised your sister ran away from her community centre art class, only to be found at the nearby hawker centre’s chicken rice stall.
In Singapore, we remember through food. When you’re in a country whose every corner is another food stall, this means constantly reopening old wounds. Sometimes unwillingly, but always undeniably. There are pleasant ones, although even happy memories are tinged with a certain poignancy on hindsight, and there are the obvious painful ones. Then there are the ones that show up unexpectedly, the ones which leave you vulnerable and self-conscious, like when you have a sambal stain on a white shirt, and you walk around the whole day with a glaring reminder of what you wish to forget.
God damn it this is so beautifully thought of and written I’m so jealous.
I am highly sensitive to this word. If anyone even insinuates that I am the S word, it will spur me to do everything I can to become the opposite.
You can call me weak, or lazy, or passive, or even stupid. I will admit to being all those and I am comfortable with these flaws. I love that I’m lazy and weak. I’m not a superhuman. What’s wrong with being stupid and passive?
But the S word… Oh no way Jose. Nobody on earth should be that. This is a zero tolerance zone right here. I would rather be a bitch, a cunt, a pussy, a (insert any other swear words named after female anatomy), before I am that S word.
On another note, if I ever seriously call you spoiled, know that it is the worse insult I can ever give.
Sometimes I feel like my friends are all “I need emotional support!” and this is the best I can offer.
I went to this book store and their books were wrapped up in paper with small descriptions so no one would “judge a book by its cover”