Food from home

Like many emigrants, I think of ‘home’ in many different ways. There is my current home in Cumbria, where I live with my family. There is my home country, Singapore, where I grew up. There is my adopted home country, Scotland, where my husband came from and my boys were born. Scotland is also the place where my mother, sister and brother live. Thus when I say that I am thinking of home, it can be a little confusing for the person I am talking to.

In this blog, I am hearkening back to my home in Singapore. It was not all wine and roses, of course, but I will tell you, that I do think back nostalgically about the food that I still miss with a passion. I lived in Serangoon Gardens and would walk down Chartwell Drive to the market or Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre for snacks and meals. I could also visit any one of the many stalls that encircled the bus depot at Serangoon Gardens Circus, where stallholders displayed their wares. I can just about smell the different aromas of the food that was being cooked at the various hawker stalls at any one time as I write.

The morning market was not actually my favourite place to visit, and I tried not to visit it if I could help it. The stalls were sectioned off into a dry area, a wet area, a semi-dry area, and an eating area. The dry stalls sold tinned and dried foods. You could buy clothing, bags, shoes, ironmongery, household goods, etc. The wet stalls sold fresh seafood and meats. The semi-dry area sold fresh vegetables and fruits, and included stalls that would grind up a fresh coconut to produce coconut milk and cream. The eating area encompassed stalls selling cooked food.

I did not like the wet market simply for the fact of the noise and echoing commotion of stall holders and customers talking to stallholders and over each other. Water was sloshed repeatedly over the floor tiles or concrete to keep them clean, and it was very slippery to walk on. The clanging of metal buckets, movement of crates and continual scrubbing of surfaces echoed in the dimness of the wet marketplace, and made my ears ring so that I often felt disoriented. The overpowering smell of fish and meats put me off, even though I do like eating both. If the servant or Dad was busy, I was generally sent to the fish monger where I would buy ingredients for dinner or lunch.

The dry stalls were nicer to visit, especially if one was looking for a bargain. The merchandise proffered was not of the highest in the fashion stakes, but it was serviceable and could even be quite pretty and of decent quality. Some dry stalls even sold make-up and a teenage girl with only a little pocket money would have found these stalls of some interest.

The semi-wet stalls were the stalls that I was sent to frequent during my girlhood. My father used to pluck coconuts off the plantation grounds at the back of our house and get me to trot down to the market to get the coconut ground into milk and cream as required. It was hot work walking up and down the steep hill in the high morning sun, but I knew that Dad and Mum would be making either a curry or a coconut with creamed corn ice cream from my efforts and looked forward to the end results.

The eating area was my favourite area. Here, one could buy a variety of Indian, Chinese, Peranakan, and Malay food. Stall holders would sell their own specialisms, which could range from just a couple of dishes to a great many choices. One could also buy local drinks and desserts to drink and eat. The morning market would sell breakfast foods; and the lunchtime market would sell luncheon fare. At night, the stallholders would re-open and sell similar luncheon fare at dinner time.

I had so many favourite foods. I love seafood noodles, savoury carrot cake (both the black and white varieties), a breakfast food that translates into ‘wet cake’, chicken rice, satay, etc. Basically, unless it contained innards or lots of pork or beef, uncommon sea food or fatty meats, I would be quite happy to give it a go. I never grew fat on the food we ate in Singapore, despite my Singaporean mentality of thinking about the next meal ahead as soon as I had just completed my current meal.

The night time food trade at the hawker centre, Chomp Chomp, was always brisk and customers would queue to buy takeaways or order food to eat in situ. I loved buying a dish with dry noodles and fish balls. My sister enjoyed laksa and my brother liked anything that was chilly hot, particularly the barbecued squid. While growing up, Dad would often go down to Chomp Chomp around 11 pm and buy a round of supper for us all to eat before bed. It’s a wonder none of us ballooned out!

Now that I am living in the UK, I do miss the local food hugely. I am not clever enough to cook the food that I love, and none of the local restaurants serve anything close to it. My brother, however, does have a very discerning palate and can make out the different spices and ingredients that goes into making any Singaporean dish. And he is a great cook. So, no prizes for guessing who gets to wear the kitchen apron when he is at my house. I will do all the washing up just to get a taste of home.

My children have grown up eating and enjoying the food of my home country, and my husband has developed a taste for even more adventurous Singaporean dishes than I will eat. For example, Hubby will eat chicken feet with great enjoyment but I will turn up my nose at them. I think it is his Scottish background that makes him so happy to try out the innards and (as far as I am concerned) unpalatable animal parts. After all, he does like haggis, the Scottish equivalent of innards galore within a sheep’s stomach sac. Our children take after Hubby and will eat most everything too.

When we first arrived at Blenheim Lodge, someone suggested that we serve Chinese congee as one of our breakfast choices. Alas, though I would dearly love to do so, I don’t think there will be much uptake as it isn’t exactly typical British fare, is it? Moreover, my sister says that I make wallpaper paste rather than congee whenever I try to cook it!

For those of you who are interested in knowing what we do offer for breakfast at Blenheim Lodge, we grill fresh handmade sausages and bacon made by our local butcher and cook eggs that are delivered fresh to our door each morning along with pint bottles of local milk. For those who prefer baked goods rather than a cooked breakfast, we offer handmade muffins and croissants. Fresh and tinned fruit are always available for breakfast as are toast, cereals, juice, tea, coffee, and yoghurt. Our guests enjoy the grilled meats and will buy from the local butcher to take home if they are able to. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law tells me that my scrambled eggs are excellent, as do many of our guests who have said that they are the tastiest they have eaten. Now that, I have to say, is a compliment indeed!

A sedate and inviting dining room at Blenheim Lodge, a stark contrast from the bustle and characterful ambience of the hawker centres and marketplace eateries of my youth in Singapore.

‘Blenheim Lodge . . . panoramic Lake views, peace and tranquillity, nestled against acres of beautiful fields and woodlands, in the heart of the English Lake District National Park.’

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