“Food is like a pastime for us. It brings people together. It’s also an opportunity for people to socialise and enjoy each other’s company,” said Mastura Didih, director of Hjh Maimunah restaurant.
Food is indelibly a part of Singapore’s culture and way of life. From zi char (traditional dishes influenced by home-cooked Chinese food), kueh (bite-sized snack or desserts) to briyani (Indian spiced dish with meat or vegetables) and laksa (spicy coconut-milk based soup), Singaporeans and visitors can enjoy a variety of good local food at affordable prices.
Despite these trying times, our chefs still go about their day-to-day work with resilience, tenacity and an unwavering passion for their craft, which is to make good, delicious cuisine.
As the stove fire is lit, the ingredients tossed into the pan, and the food carefully prepared in the takeout boxes for delivery to homes, our chefs are working conscientiously in the kitchen to bring food and comfort to people.
We are reminded of how our chefs go out of their ways to bring food to people and this can only be achieved through the sacrifices made. From missing time spent with loved ones to interacting with customers in the restaurants, the human connection is evidently absent–much akin to a missing ingredient in a dish.
“I miss spending time most with my family. I became a father of a seven-month-old baby recently. I go to work early and return home late, and my son is sleeping during those times. I also miss interacting with my customers. I used to sit with them and chat over kopi (coffee). Now either they just collect their food or we deliver to their homes,” said Douglas Ng, founder of Fishball Story.
Matsura added, “I miss the chatter and laughter, and just seeing people getting together in our restaurant. I hope we can see them again after this period.”
“There’s a void, a limited connection. This [yearning for connection] is what will drive us because I believe food is always about people. I just want to keep cooking and make people happy,” said Malcolm Lee, chef-owner of the world’s first and only Michelin-starred Peranakan* restaurant Candlenut.
*The term is an Indonesian/Malay word that means “local born”, which generally refers to people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.
From hawker centres, cafes to eateries and restaurants dotted all over the city, the food business is always about the people. At Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Paul Liew is the third-generation operation manager of the family-run restaurant serving delicious zi char dishes for more than five decades.
He said, “As a family business, we care for our employees like family. My 90-year-old grandmother, who is the founder of the restaurant, asked me about the welfare of the staff when news [about the COVID-19 situation] broke.”
He continued, “Family values mean a lot to us. Regular customers are familiar with our food such as the moonlight hor fun (velvet wok-fried thin rice cake strips with raw egg yolk), which they have eaten since young. My grandmother created it and we’re still cooking it today. It’s not just about the food, but the values, the simplicity of our cuisine, and the experiences shared.”
Besides reaching out to customers, the chefs and restaurant owners in the food and beverage industry are banding to help one another.
For instance, Malcolm had to source for certain ingredients. He recalled, “Suppliers would ask me what do I need and then bring in the ingredients even at the last minute. This is the support we have with our suppliers. We want to encourage each other, support each other, and come out stronger through this period.”
Paul explained further on how restaurants are in fact working with one another to ensure longevity, “We see a lot of unity in this industry. We see people delivering food to frontline workers. We see competitors turn partners. We see people across industries helping one another.”
Adapting to Change
Even as dining in at restaurants is prohibited for now, our chefs are adapting to the situation and finding ways to bring food to their customers.
“We are doing our best to adapt as people are staying home. We want to make it as convenient as possible for our customers so we engaged a group of drivers who are out of jobs now to deliver the food to their doorsteps. The delivery fee will help the drivers tide through this period,” said Douglas.
Since April, Hjh Maimunah has started taking online orders to ensure the food is delivered safely to their customers. Mastura explains further that customers love their food such as rendang (braised meat cooked in coconut milk and spices) and tahu telur (fried tofu, eggs and vegetables topped with peanuts and a spicy sauce) because they remind them of traditional home-cooked meals.
“It’s important to include our customers’ favourites in the online menu because it’s not easy for them to cook themselves during the fasting month. We want our food to bring a sense of comfort to them during this period,” revealed Mastura on how the nasi padang (steamed rice served with various pre-cooked dishes) eatery–awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand 2019–changed the way it operated during this period.
The dining scene may have evolved during difficult times of restricted movement, but our chefs remain positive on the road ahead. When travel is made possible in the future, visitors can look forward to share in our city’s food obsession and discover a realm of new flavours, culinary passion and out-of-this-world dining experiences.
Paul simply put, “I hope travellers will return to enjoy our local cuisine and embrace our unique culture in Singapore.”
Malcolm summed it best–“This period has been really challenging for food establishments. I hope that people will start to appreciate the hard work and effort put in by these businesses after this period. People will appreciate the craft and have a new sense of wonder for our food.”