Taking time to eat

Sherilyn Chew 14 May 2016

When I came to Cambridge, one of the first things I did with my Singaporean friends to soothe our homesick souls (and stomachs) was cook. We went a bit nuts, and ended up with 7 dishes for 3 people.

We shared our dinner over longing conversations about the foods we missed most at home, like char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles with sausage, lard, and other delicious unhealthy things), bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), and chicken rice.

A few months later we celebrated Chinese New Year, sharing the pineapple tarts and bakkwa (pork jerky) that had been meticulously bubble-wrapped and packed away in our suitcases over Christmas. We rationed them carefully like they were worth their weight in gold.

Looking back on our celebrations, it's odd how little we cared for these things — and sometimes, even got tired of them — when they were easily available at home.

Of course, it’s not just the food that has changed. Studying in Cambridge had not been on my radar at all; it had just been an option on the UCAS form, and an unrealistic one at that. So when I did find myself at the airport last year, saying goodbye to my friends, it felt surreal.

Up till now, the feeling has never quite left me. So many new things — and lots of new food to try. My lovely college wife, who hails from Stoke-on-Trent, let me try oatcakes from her hometown — which of course were great.

But there are also the times when the thought of home makes me feel hollow and empty in my stomach, a hunger that doesn't just arise from a craving for some good old roti prata (an Indian flatbread). Three weeks ago, I called home, and my grandmother told me she was waiting for me to come home so she could cook me my favourite dishes. 

As she checked them off one by one, as though to confirm they were still my favourites, my eyes welled with unexpected tears. I had to quickly say goodbye before my voice started sounding funny.

My grandmother’s call reminded me that food has always been about community. At home, I took it for granted that I could come back every day to have dinner with my family, that I could go out for meals anytime with my friends, or have heartfelt chats late in the evening over a Milo dinosaur (a chocolate malt drink). When we were tired of studying back in high school, my friends and I would walk to our favourite local haunt to get roti prata and curry together.

In Cambridge, there’s barely any time to do anything, with the result that meals are often hurried affairs — grab a sandwich and go, or sometimes, just skip it altogether. What I really miss about home is the simple pleasure of ending a busy day by sitting down to share a meal with the people I love. It’s easy to throw out a “hi how are you doing” at people on the way to lectures; it means far more to take the time to have a leisurely meal with them, to slowly enjoy the food and each other’s company.

With exams just round the corner, it’s probably best to avoid brooding. But it gives me immense encouragement to know that I can soon look forward to boarding a plane from Heathrow Airport for a 13 hour flight home, with the promise of char kway teow, chicken rice and my grandmother’s cooking waiting on the other side.