Q&A with Christal Sih, author of Grandma’s Recipes
On 31 August, NOSHtrekker will be hosting an evening of words and food with Singapore author and graphic designer Christal Sih as part of our #eatmywords pop-up series. Christal’s book Grandma’s Recipes is published by Math Paper Press and is a collection of photographs, writing and Chinese-Singapore recipes.
NOSHtrekker: Food history is something that many of us take for granted. Do you think Singaporeans are doing enough to keep the memory of food alive? Are we also doing enough to keep the flavours alive so we can pass them down to future generations? How can we create a food history that is more accessible?
Christal Sih: I think food is very much celebrated by Singaporeans as a unique and defining feature of Singaporean culture—the memory of it currently seems to be alive and well. Nostalgia about food is a common theme in local design goods, for example. However, I feel like we could have more emphasis on the actual making of the food, in order to ensure that it stays a part of our lives (not only in memory) and the consciousness of future generations as well. I came across the Vanishing Home Recipes series by Channel News Asia Insider recently, and it reinforces that it is a concern to a lot of people.
In terms of creating better access to food history, something we can do is to continue the sharing of knowledge from the generations before us in the way that they did in communities (in families, in kampongs ) but reinventing the manner in which it is shared. Bridging the gap between past and present is something that I tried to do in Grandma’s Recipes with the skill that I’m most familiar with—graphic design. After years of helping my Grandma to buy recipes books, I got to make our own book—a version of which that I hope would be more accessible to people in my generation.
NT: What did working on the book reveal to you about your grandmother, your heritage, yourself?
CS: Working on the book was a way for me to record down my relationship with my grandmother, having grown up with her close by—she is a very practical woman, and although food is tied to her role in the home it relates to a sense of wellbeing as well. I relate to her on the latter, and it is something that transcends generational differences in my family. Working on the book, I realised I wanted to portray the uniqueness of Singaporean culture in its postcolonial hybridity to both a local and international audience—the process and ingredients of making Singaporean food are just as reflective of the country and its intersections of culture as the food itself.
Photo courtesy of Christal Sih
NT: Which recipe should people try first in the book?
CS: Dark Sauce Chicken! I think for a simple (but exact) recipe, it has really impressive results. I can make it easily over in the States, but I have to bring over that specific chicken marinade and dark soy sauce.
NT: What is one piece of cooking advice your grandmother has given you that you can share with us?
CS: “Be generous with other generous people!”—this is not quite specific to cooking, but with this mentality my grandmother is part of a community of older women in our neighbourhood that share food, recipes, ingredients and car rides to the market with each other. It’s what I imagine the kampong spirit to be like.
NT: What is one thing you recommend visitors eat in Singapore?
CS: If it suits their dietary preferences, I would definitely recommend Bak Chor Mee – it’s one of the first things I eat whenever I go back to Singapore. I don’t know of any Singaporean who has been successfully able to replicate this dish abroad, or of a similar dish in any other culture’s cuisine.
Singapore: Bak Chor Mee
New York City: Spicy Oxtail Noodle Soup, Xi’an Famous Foods
NT: What is one thing you recommend Singaporeans eat when they visit New York City?
CS: I would recommend the Spicy Oxtail Noodle Soup at any Xi’an Famous Foods location, it’s one of my favourite things to eat here. I like the story behind the business; how a first-generation Chinese-American was able to turn his immigrant father’s food stall and a culturally specific cuisine into a popular chain all over New York City. The dish itself is also very comforting.