As a 12 –year-old living in America, amid a tempestuous sea of change, the one thing I missed most was the food from Singapore, my home. I was in a new environment, a different culture with unfamiliar people. I would crave, yearn for a simply plate of chicken rice; the familiar taste of the subtle ginger scented rice cooked in the chicken stock and the lovely mouthfeel of the fatty gelatinous chicken skin. I longed for a plate of Chai Tow Kueh, the smooth white radish and rice flour cake cubes, fried with sweet black sauce and eggs, from the stall near my grandparents’ home on Upper Thompson Road. My family had been going to that stall since I could remember. The husband and wife team always prepared my Chai Tow Kueh specially for me, with extra sweet black sauce and would always smile when I ordered.
Yet the years abroad slowly weaned me off my pining for Singaporean comfort food. I realize that when I want to eat something reassuring, I turn to the simple and hearty food of my adopted home. In college, my favorite comfort food was a greasy and heart attack inducing Wendy’s Triple or Buffalo wings from Wingz, a delivery place near campus.
I thought that the lack of Singaporean food in Syracuse caused my defection. But even when I moved to New York City after college, and I could find authentic Singaporean food in Flushing, Queens where I spent my first three months living at the Y, I still preferred simple western food. In fact, after Flushing, when I moved to the financial district with my college buddies and all my money seemed to go to rent and bills, my favorite dish to cook was a hearty bowl of spaghetti. The sauce was from a jar (whichever brand was on sale) and it was mixed with minced beef and doused in Kraft parmesan, Reggiano, being a luxury I wasn’t willing to spurge on then, especially when I had other priorities like beer.
As I sit here in Singapore typing this, having been back for a year, I find myself drawn more and more to the burger for comfort. There is nothing I find more satisfying than a burger with a thick patty, one made with a lot of fat, some lettuce, a tomato slice, a little mayo for extra body and ketchup for a tart saucy counterpoint, all on a lightly toasted and buttered bun. I find it strange that I no longer seek my chicken rice or Chai Tow Kueh when I’m looking for comfort food. Perhaps its like when someone has mastered a new language and the language of their dreams change.
If comfort food is about something reassuringly familiar, then I wonder just where home is.