Any card-carrying Singaporean scarcely needs a reason to dig in and fill up on a good meal but with Chinese New Year around the corner, the sights and smells of tantalising treats are more ubiquitous than ever. But food is not just for joyous occasions; it sustains us on the daily, physically and emotionally. Here are 10 books by Asian authors which demonstrate why the term ‘comfort food’ is so relatable.
Soya & Spice: Food and Memoirs of a Straits Teochew Family by Jo Marion Seow
Just thinking about the distinctive smell of this Hiang See Poong transports me right back to the little kitchen where Mama fried the garlic, salted black beans and pork belly that were to be cooked with the rice in the electric rice cooker.
Seow shares not only her family’s heirloom recipes but also personal anecdotes and memories in this cookbook. Detailing the origins of certain dishes and dietary habits of yesteryears, it is in some ways a journey to the past as well. Inspired cooks will appreciate the clear instructions and ingredients that can be realistically sourced in Singapore.
Growing up in a Nonya Kitchen by Sharon Wee
Once again, the Nonya cook’s popiah skills were based on the fineness of her bangkuang and bamboo shoot strips. They had to be alus (fine), not kasar (coarse). Unless you have a fastidious father like mine, or wish to impress a future Nonya mother-in-law, you might as well forget about cutting and slicing the bangkuang and bamboo shoot strips so finely because the time and effort may frustrate you and kill your joy over having future popiah parties.
A modern Nonya, Wee created this book as her way of remembering her heritage, giving readers a glimpse into Peranakan culture through food. Piecing together recipes based on notes from her grandmother, home cooks daunted by the Nonya’s agak agak (estimating) cooking philosophy are saved by her precise measurements. Worth a read just for the food photos.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Along one of the arcades stretched long banquet tables that displayed a wondrous selection of desserts. There were elaborate cakes, soufflés, and sweet puddings, there were goreng pisang drizzled with Lyle’s Golden Syrup, nyonya kuehs in every color of the rainbow, and tall polished samovars filled with different steaming-hot elixirs.
Crazy rich Asians aside, the next great spectacle to come out of Kwan’s novel is Singapore’s obsession with food. Even the stupendously wealthy cannot resist the everyday hawker fare that fuels Singapore’s reputation as a food paradise, and what better way to show off one’s riches than extravagant feasts?
A Baba Boyhood by William Gwee
The rice ration we were supplied with consisted of broken, poor-quality rice coated with lime powder as a weevil guard. It could be cooked as a gruel, we were compelled to turn to black market sources for normal rice, usually the Rangoon variety, and it was not cheap. Therefore, each time rice was cooked, only a small amount of good quality rice was used.
Despite the straightforward title, Gwee’s book is also a sobering account of life during the Japanese Occupation. He writes not only of his childhood but the Peranakan community’s downward spiral due to the war’s devastations, especially in contrast to the relative privilege and comfort they enjoyed before.
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen-Mah
In contrast to Ye Ye’s spartan repast, she placed sweet-and-sour spareribs, string beans with beef in black bean sauce and sautéed spinach on the table for Third Brother and me. As soon as she left the room, Ye Ye quickly served himself a generous helping of ribs.
It is perhaps ironic that what stands out in Yen-Mah’s recount of her abusive childhood is the privilege and wealth enjoyed by her family during wartime China. Between her descriptions of her stepmother’s beautiful appearance and ugly behaviour, readers get a poignant tale of an 11-year-old girl’s struggle for love and acceptance.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Each week one of us would host a party to raise money and to raise our spirits. The hostess had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds — dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life.
What started as a way to raise spirits during wartime turned into a mahjong group for four Chinese immigrant mothers, though food continues to play a part. Tan tells the women’s stories and their struggles to connect with their first-generation American Chinese daughters, underscoring the generational gap.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
This katsudon, encountered almost by accident, was made with unusual skill, I must say. Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and onions handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up in the broth — it was flawless.
Featuring Mikage, a protagonist who is low-key obsessed with kitchens, personal tragedies are salved there; she sleeps, cooks, cleans and grows through her time in one. Ultimately, it is not the food that heals but the kindness given by one another.
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal
“How can anybody eat something that’s packaged like that?” she asked me one time when we passed the restaurant. People unwrapped burgers from colourful wrappers and sank their teeth into the soft buns. “It’s food. It’s not a meal,” she said. “I hope I’ve taught you that there’s a difference. Like a house and a home.”
Comfort food is taken to a literal level. Pin’s mother is a woman with secrets but the food she prepares speaks of her emotions, with Chinese dishes meaning she is not upset and red spicy dishes reflecting her anger. Jaswal manages to showcase the experience and pains of being a racial minority and the evolution of Singapore in this novel about family, conflict between generations, and prejudice.
On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
The chef, with lean, muscular arms, used a flat iron with a handle to push globs of dough through a large grater suspended over a wok. (Thousands of miles later, I would learn that Italians and Germans used a similar method to make a pasta called spatzli or spaetzle.) After draining the noodles, the chef divided them into bowls and topped them with a sauce of stir-fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs.
Lin-Liu takes on the Silk Road to uncover the noodle in its myriads of forms. Besides being an entertaining and interesting read about travel and food, she also contemplates her marriage and identity as an America-born Chinese. Recipes within the book come in handy when it has whetted your appetite.
Timmy & Tammy Make Pineapple Tarts by Ruth Wan-Lau
Grandma makes our dough better.
“Thank you, Grandma!”
Timmy and Tammy say.
We put balls of pineapple jam on top.
Everything looks good.
Little pineapple tart lovers will get a kick out of reading this Timmy and Tammy book! With Grandma’s help, the duo makes the tasty treat that everyone reaches for during Chinese New Year. The colourful illustrations and simple sentence structures make it a palatable read.