I have always loved food – to the extent that it is undeniably a part of my identity. Perhaps it was inevitable, having grown up in a ‘foodie’ family – my mother is an amazing cook and my father is an adventurous eater who has always loved reading reviews and dragging us here or there for a taste of something or other. I used food to reconnect with my Peranakan identity, and this recognition of the vitality of food to identity allows me to better understand other people’s identities. Nowadays, amidst life and university, I don’t get to spend as much time in the kitchen as I would like. I still love cooking and baking to make friends smile though, and I procrastinate by watching an embarrassingly large quantity of food videos – instructional cooking videos, restaurant reviews and even slow-motion shots of cooking that turn the act into a form of art. However, it is still a struggle to find content featuring the food that I grew up with.
I was born in Singapore, but raised largely in America. I was one of the only ethnically Chinese students at the school I attended, and this difference symbolically manifested in the contents of my lunchbox. This sounds like a set up for a stereotypical story about the other kids’ shock or surprise when I pulled out something other than a white bread sandwich for lunch – but for me this was actually a comparatively positive experience. My lunches – usually a sort of stir-fry – were highly sought after, and many times I used this to trade for foods I wasn’t allowed, such as ‘lunchables’ or something equally unhealthy.
Other memories I have surrounding food at that age involve my parents lamenting about the lack of Singaporean food available in San Francisco. My mother is an excellent cook and learnt how to make many ‘local’ dishes – but it was often hard to find ingredients that would help her recreate the tastes of home. Now, living abroad again, I find this experience incredibly relatable. My food aspirations are often curbed because I have no clue where to find so-called ‘exotic’ ingredients in Canberra. Galangal for satay or mung bean flour for kueh – these are essential for the dishes with names that make the red squiggly line appear as I write this piece, but are often not even located in the supermarket’s ‘Asian’ aisle.
Food is often integral to the production of (trans)nationalist identities. The sensory element becomes nostalgic in the way that has the capacity to contain and evoke the past. Ask almost any Singaporean migrant and they will lament how much they miss the food. Though it took a while for me to warm up to Singaporean food once we moved back there from America, I came to identify many of these dishes as comfort food. Even conventions around meals in Australia are incredibly different to what I was used to – full meals such as Nasi Lemak with sambal and ikan bilis for breakfast are typical in Singapore, but something that my Australian flatmate could never stomach eating in the morning.
Food is intertwined with my identity and, for me, the difficulty of accessing typical Singaporean foods is a very real and symbolic part of being away from home. Although I managed to bring kaya, a pandan-based spread, into Australia, the bread tastes different here and so I can never make the toast taste as it does back at home.
Food is integral to the human experience, embodying memories of people, places and experiences – that is why I love it.
Pisang Hoon Kueh
The name of this dessert translates to mean banana green-pea flour pudding. It is a Nyonya dessert that I recently learnt how to make with my mother as a way to connect to my Peranakan heritage. It’s cool and refreshing, perfect for the blistering heat and humidity of Singapore – and Canberra in the summer too, I bet!
100g hoon kueh powder (green-pea flour)
1/2tbsp tapioca flour
2 tbsp rice flour
250ml coconut milk
3 bananas (pisang)
Banana leaves (you could probably use parchment paper)
- Steam the bananas for five minutes, then leave them to cool before slicing them up.
- Boil the banana leaves until they’re soft, and then cut into the desired size for wrapping.
- Combine the coconut milk, hoon kueh powder, rice flour and tapioca flour in a large bowl.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine water, salt and sugar until the mixture boils and thickens. Add the flour mixture. This mixture is known as hoon kueh.
- (Optional) Transfer the hoon kueh to a double boiler, to prevent it from hardening while you wrap the leaves.
- To wrap, spoon one tablespoon of hoon kueh onto a banana leaf, followed by two to three slices of banana. Top this with two more tablespoons of hoon kueh and then wrap it up, aiming for a rectangular parcel the size of your palm.
- Allow to cool, and then refrigerate well before serving.