A few triggers over the past 2 weeks led me to ask this question. First, a question from my dad, remarking that I always go out to eat these days. He wondered whether I actually knew the amount of effort that went into the creation of each meal. I asked myself this fundamental question too, as an appreciator of food, and also went into thinking why each home-cooked meal tastes so different from outside food. Just yesterday, me and my friend Andrew were engaged in a discussion that good food need not be always expensive, which explains why I'm writing this.
These days, I can't help but notice more and more food blogs going all crazy and raving about those high-end, atas expensive, chi-chi chic cafes/restaurants or bars in their reviews. I mean, on the surface, it really seems that Singaporeans really have it good in terms of international dining, doesn't it? From Joel Robuchon to Daniel Boulud, Singaporeans are spoilt for choice when it comes to having an opinion on two on fine dining. Every self-discerning food blogger, myself included, seem to have the habit to go up to one another and rave about their latest exploits in the fine dining scene. It almost seems that in order to have somewhat of a "food blogger" credential in these circles, one has to inevitably blog about those fine restaurants and those chi-chi cafes that charge you $18 for Eggs Benedict (seriously?!)
Okay, this Katong boy isn't here to attack your atas establishments ok. Neither am I here to implore you to eat hawker centre food and blog about them everyday. It just that these days, one takes a look at the big Singaporean food blogs and almost all of them (except ieatishootipost, or so I know) go gaga over DB's Bistro Moderne or Wolfgang Puck's latest venture. None of them seem to remember our where we have built our culinary heritage from. Or at least pay an occasional tribute, every 10 posts. It's always this coffee house, that coffee place, that patisserie…
Disclaimer: I respect those who run these little coffee places and make their food with heart and soul. In fact, I too, love to visit, patronize, and publicize these little finds!
I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by food. C'mon lah, for someone who stays beside the current 328 (previously known as 51) and No. 49 Katong Laksa(s), I wake up to the pungent aroma of spices and laksa leaves being made every morning. Forbidden City (by IndoChine Holdings) was by my doorstep, as it was with the nonya kueh stall fighting with today's Kim Choo's empire, further down East Coast Road. The Red House bakery was still open then, and I loved the smell of their "po lo bao" when I walked to school every morning. I talked to the then-young couple that sold me steaks every Tuesday afternoon at the corner kopitiam selling Mary's famous tau kwa pau as a kid, before they later decided to set up their wildly successful venture later known to everybody as Astons' Specialities. These were the times where Glory Catering ruled the corner of Joo Chiat and East Coast Roads, not Awfully Chocolate or Mooshi Bakes, and when the first Awfully Chocolate store was just an empty white space on a dying mall known as Katong Mall at that time.
Okay. Enough waxing nostalgic about the past. Point is, these days, people seem to think that good food is much more assuring prospect when one pays top dollar for it. You pay for what you get seems to be the mantra. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
Good food comes from the heart. It is an intricate blend of professional craftmanship and personality. Personality cannot be bought. Not in the mechanical kitchens that flips steaks on a automated grill to the second, not even in scientifically researched blends in those religiously followed recipes. It is much more beyond that. Good food, is also about understanding the person behind the dish you eat. It is a much more soulful or satisfying experience feeling that the rojak auntie added too much prawn paste in your rojak today because her son failed her English exam for the third time in a row. Why? Because you feel for that person, and that food becomes genuine. Eating is, and has always been, a fundamentally human experience. As a human you feel. As someone you eat, you understand and feel the heart and personality of the person behind your food, whether you've just met that person or not.
I used to be a fan of Kim Choo's famous dumplings, back then when they cost only $2 for a big chunky nonya zhang. Mind you, that was during the Dumpling Festival hor. They used to be so filled with sweet, flavor-packed moist meat, with just that appropriate zing from the right amount of 5-spice powder. Not too long ago, I had one of their Nonya Zhang. They cost more than $3 now, and the meat is lesser, drier and I can't help but notice that there's more glutinous rice than before. Perhaps they've had to cope with greater demand, and they've got to change the way they make their dumplings to cope with that greater demand. Mass production. I don't blame them. But one thing I feel, is that they've lost that charm, that personal factor as they have branched out to claim their greater place in the intensely competitive culinary world out there. I mean, if not them, who else would rise to the occasion, right?
And it is pretty much the same with all these new eateries popping up by the dozen these days. Commercial establishments serving supposedly good, gourmet and increasingly upmarket fare, in nice, air-conditioned settings. The diner will always behind the table, never knowing who or what made their dish, and greeted with the occasional smile of your probably foreign-sourced waitstaff. It doesn't, well, feel that Singaporean anymore. It feels like any other cafe that you get in Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague or London. Except with asian servers of course.
Food will always taste different when you know that there's someone to put a face to behind your dish. It's almost like sensing another person. The love, the joy, and the heart they put in their food in the best of times, and the shoddiness and stinginess they put in in the bad - it's like an adventure, a game of chance, much like life. You don't know who you're gonna meet in the next corner. Food is the same way, and putting a face to that food makes it all the more special.
The best thing about this? You don't have to pay top dollar to get that. In fact, visit your nearby kopitiam and watch how the uncle makes your food instead of answering that call or replying in that Whatsapp thread of yours. You never know what friendships you may make or what you may learn from that little exchange of yours.
Take a chance, because it's worth it. The toktok man will be smiling, like he always did, up from heaven.