In primary school, I usually had lunch at my grandparents’ home during the noon break. Knowing that I grew up with a sweet tooth, grandpa always prepared me Misandao, a traditional fried cake glazed with malt sugar, with white sesame seeds dotting the top.
Grandpa is also a sweet tooth. After lunch, he would take out the five-year-old cookie jar, lean in to catch a glimpse of what he knew to be inside, and squeeze his calloused hand in to grab out the box of Misandao. And I just sit quietly beside him, blinking my eyes at the blurred golden shape through the plastics. He placed the box of eight Misandao on the table and took out one piece, pushing the rest toward me.
Misandao is sweet, but its barley aroma mediates the feeling of greasiness and indulgence. He used to bite half of it and seemed to be observing and examining the other half, chewing slowly. I always asked him to have more, and he always replied by asking me to have more. Admiring my grandpa a lot as a little kid, I followed him, having only one piece at a time.
I used to look at the white sesame on the surface glazed with sugar, glistening under the sunlight like delicate china—gentle, mild, and soothing. It came into my mouth like a sailing boat driven by a young sailor, melting into my ocean with peace and embracement. The sweet softness extended as I chewed, like the water sleeves of classical Chinese dancers flying in the air. The movement played in slow motion—the silk flows in the air like the stream of honey that flows in me, and I dive into it. I’d take a sip of green tea—as the water vapor rose, the slightest remnant of greasiness was blown away, the bitterness of tea with the extreme mellowness of barley and sesame reaching a harmony that soothed every single nerve of me.
I could not help smiling and swaying my feet under the table. And I imagined what grandpa was thinking about, peeking over at him while he stared at the Misandao. He seemed so satisfied and peaceful with the one little piece on his hand—not even bothering to grab another one.
After all these years, I still remember the times when me and grandpa sat at the same table, each holding one small piece of Misandao and chewing silently. The rest of the golden Misandao lying on the table, the laughter of children playing at the field coming through the window, and the somewhat annoying buzzing sound of the air conditioning machine. Nothing seemed to matter or exist anymore. The joy of focusing on one piece of Misandao filled me with happiness and pacified all the dissatisfactions.
I go to my grandparents’ house for lunch less and less often since middle school, but I still had Misandao at home. A whole box to myself. And then I went abroad for college, unable to squeeze even a single box of Misandao into my suitcase.
But every time I eat alone at the dining hall in college, I go back to the little table. So my blueberry muffin is my Misandao. I carefully take off the plastic bag, peel back a small corner of the paper cup, and take a bite. I feel the crispy lid that collides with my teeth, and the refreshing blueberry that lights the cloying sweetness.
I go back all the time. When I go to class wearing the jacket with the aroma of the detergent in the morning and see the sunlight going through the leaves, when I sit on the bus listening to my favorite music that beats along with the speed of passing the flowers planted by the street, and when I walk alone on the way to the supermarket at night, seeing people playing guitar on the street, I’d secretly smile under my mask, add a few jumps to my footsteps, close my eyes, and shake my head slightly.
Just like back then when I swayed my feet under the table, for the one piece of Misandao.
About twenty minutes north of Portland, Maine, off the side of US Highway Route 1, is a delightful shack-like eatery named Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster. On the right side of the white building, wooden deck steps bring visitors up to a sliding window, where one can order their lunch of steamer clams, fried clam bellies, clam chowder, crab cakes, lobster rolls, or whole lobsters with a side of corn on the cob. On the left is an entrance into a large, low-ceiling room with tanks of crawling lobsters, a counter with refrigerated soups and scallops, chalkboards detailing the prices of lobsters and steamers, and various Day’s t-shirts and mugs. Behind the buildings and next to the gravel parking lot are bright red benches overlooking a pleasant marsh with small sailboats, presumably ones for lobstering where sailors set traps and catch lobsters, in the distance. We first visited as a family in fall 2021.
Greeting you with a friendly face is an unassuming man named Trip. I recall shaking his hand, his burly, thick fingers callused with burns (from grabbing boiling-hot lobsters) enclosing my hand with a firm grip. Trip proceeds to lead my dad and I outside on the wooden deck, where a deep stainless steel tub filled with boiling water lays stacked on cinder blocks. He lifts the metal handle with his bare hands, drops in the sack of lobsters, and closes the lid. Although Trip recommends steaming lobsters at home, he says that because the restaurant has to cook nearly 100 at a time, the boiling water reaches the entire surface area of each lobster, and therefore cooks them more evenly. We walk back inside and nine minutes or so later, he carries the bright red lobsters in a styrofoam box over the counter.
Growing up in Michigan, every Thanksgiving, my dad ordered five 2+ pound lobsters shipped from Maine’s Cape Porpoise Lobster Co., instead of the traditional turkey. He always insisted that bigger was better because each lobster had more meat. To our surprise, Trip informed us that the distinction between smaller, younger lobsters (1.25 pounds or less) and larger ones (1.75 pounds or more) is analogous to that of veal and beef. My dad and I noticed a tangible difference with the meat of the smaller lobsters. The morsel of white, knuckle meat melted in our mouths–it was the most tender, succulent piece of lobster meat I had ever tasted up until that point. My dad and I were instantly converted, and thereafter we only ordered 1.25 pound lobsters from Day’s and other vendors.
We left Day’s with five cooked lobsters, all 1.25 pounds each of course, and happily consumed them for dinner. My family and I all noticed that the meat was significantly easier to separate from the shell, similar to the coveted “falling off the bone” phenomenon of well-cooked barbecue ribs. The steamed shells were also much softer to crack, and we did not need the metal crackers and sticklike paraphernalia that Thanksgiving dinners in Michigan necessitated.
Trip was definitely right, and possessed the experience to back his claim. He grew up in the area of Maine’s rocky, curvilinear coastline, fully immersed in Maine’s predominant lobster industry before working in commercial real estate for over 20 years, and then as a manager at Hannaford’s Market, a mostly Maine-based chain of supermarkets. Ultimately, he said he was sick of working in “corporate America,” and instead decided to work full-time at Day’s.
Day’s closes for the winter, only to reopen March 1, for the boats need to travel further and in rougher conditions to catch lobsters in the winter. Lobsters are therefore sold at a higher price, and it becomes less economically feasible for Day’s to remain open. My family now insists that anytime we drive together to Portland, we stop at Day’s. Let’s just say we’ll no longer eat large lobsters shipped from afar, for a trip to Day’s is worth the wait.
“You have a message from the tower: Shane wishes the Paulson family a safe trip.”
As I sat with my family, the sole four occupants on the “puddle-jumper” plane, we heard the pilot nonchalantly make this remark and were taken aback. We scoured our brains for how this could be possible and who could be giving us well wishes. In this frenzy, we peered out of the plane window only to see our server, named Shane, from the night before frantically waving at the plane from the control tower. How great of a surprise this was and how sad we were to have to leave these experiences behind as mere memories. Shane was a server at our favorite restaurant on the island of Nevis, called Bananas, and now we knew this was not his only responsibility.
To get to Bananas, you must travel a treacherous path: through winding streets, along mountain cliffs, and deep into the jungle. Upon first arrival, I felt as if we made a mistake. All that is visible at first glance is a path illuminated by tiki torches and palm trees on either side- no restaurant in sight. I remember anxiously stepping on each individual rock on this path, nervous about what was to come, but trying to relish the calm, warm environment. After the journey, you reach the house that is home to Bananas. A sprawling patio seizes your first glance, with brightly colored tables and chairs in every open space. Warm-toned lights hang from the ceiling, exuding a sense of comfort, care, and love. Laughter and conversation erupts from every party, with soft reggae music playing in the background.
My family and I did not know the bliss we had stumbled upon. Here, deep in the jungle, was a restaurant that not only was in a home, but felt like one. We sat at our table on the patio and admired the sights and sounds around us—animals calling, people laughing, and the sun setting behind the clouds. Our server, Shane, became a new friend. He guided us on the best menu choices and local spots we had to see before leaving the island. Shane seemed like an old friend, someone we were reconnecting with and reminiscing over fond memories we had yet to make. We ate a dinner just as comforting as Bananas’ atmosphere: fresh fish, sweet plantains, and conch fritters. Bananas developed a menu to reflect the environment which they inhabited. With novelty and display of local favorites, Bananas embraced the roots of Nevis and embodied them through cuisine. At Bananas, you are welcomed home.
Now that Bananas has become a mere memory, I have realized its innovative concept and success therein. They hand-delivered home, a feat countless restaurants attempt but do not reach. Shane’s service was not feigned, but of genuine pleasure from engaging with others, as evident in his bidding adieu from the tower. I continue to crave another experience at Bananas, not only for the delicious array of food, but for the nostalgia and warmth it carries. When I experience the sights, sounds, and tastes of Bananas, though no longer in Nevis, I am instantly carried back to Bananas and reminded of all the ways in which I can find home wherever I am.
Cynthia Yee strides into Eldo Cake House and greets everyone in loud and confident Cantonese. The elderly customers dressed in purple puffer jackets and compressed socks shift to make room for Yee and her guests, as if for a respected family member. The women behind the counter, dressed in classic Eldo green vests, get ready to prepare Yee’s go-to order: nai cha with no sugar. It’s a traditional Hong Kong-style milk tea.
“They call me Missy. You know why they call me Missy?” Yee says, who is a blogger that writes about growing up on 116 Hudson St. in Chinatown. “They are making fun of my name because I am a teacher.”
The Cantonese banter continues. Laughs and playful insults bounce around the cafe as one of the women who work there prepares four aromatic nai chas. Yee calls it the bakery dialogue.
Eldo Cake House has been a staple bakery on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown for around 30 years. Famous for its perfectly sweet and savory char siu buns, deliciously creamy egg custard tarts, and fluffy fruit cakes, it’s a casual bakery with neon lights outside, a stainless steel kitchen lined with clanging pots and pans, and the smell of sweet char siu wafting in the air – a homey place with three square wooden tables along one wall.
But Yee also remembers the small mom-and-pop grocery store that was once in the spot Eldo now occupies, owned by two generations of a Taishanese family.
Chinatown is a 9-block enclave in the middle of Boston, shrouded by high-rise apartment buildings and offices threatening to further encroach on its borders. It’s home to a densely packed food haven, with over 100 related food businesses that were hurt badly by the Covid-19 pandemic and also face racism and xenophobia. Although life is slowly returning to its small alleyway, that’s not nearly enough to keep these businesses afloat. Preserving Chinatown means saving tradition, but a new generation is also stepping up to revitalize this neighborhood.
“It was empty,” Yee says with her hands around a warm nai cha in a small cream paper cup. “These ladies worked every day, but you couldn’t even sit down.” With restrictions to indoor dining, and a lack of outdoor seating on Chinatown’s cramped one-way streets, many businesses saw a huge drop in customers.
Some pockets of the Chinatown Yee remembers remain, though a few are left. Beside the iconic Chinatown Gate are elderly East-Asian men playing chess on the concrete tables. Cantonese, Mandarin, and other dialects mix together in that playful banter. But beside them is a plastic playground, with no children playing on it.
Chinese lanterns in red and gold hang above the chess tables, but in the backdrop is a high-rise apartment building with rent starting at $3,000.
Some restaurants hang up neon signs that create a soft, colorful glow at night. There are faded menus with 100 food items. The smell of smoking woks laced with Chinatown pollution hangs in the air. But beside those “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants are chain stores that only appeal to wandering tourists.
Chinatown is a home, not just a tourist attraction where outsiders get their once-a-month ethnic fix. But Asians now make up less than half of Chinatown’s population.
Despite all the changes, Yee still goes through the extra effort to come to Chinatown during the pandemic. “I made my car a mobile cafe because I didn’t want to stay at home,” Yee says. “So I had to turn the AC on, get my nai cha, and drink in my car. I just couldn’t stay away from my nai cha habit.”
Restrictions on indoor dining weren’t the sole reason Chinatown became a ghost town. Around the country, the number of hate crimes against Asians rose as much as 73 percent last year, according to the FBI. The terms “China virus” and “kung-flu,” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump, entered circulation. Memes targeted East-Asian restaurants, based on rumors of Covid-19 having come from Chinese bat soup.
The FBI recorded 310 hate crimes involving 408 victims in Massachusetts. In the early morning of February, 69-year-old Liem Tran was violently beaten and robbed in the North Quincy Red Line station. Tran still relives that fear and anger everyday. In May, 100 people gathered in Boston Commons for a Stop Asian Hate protest. Former Mayor Kim Janey said at the protest, “From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans to the sexualization of Asian women in our culture, this latest surge is part of a long dark history,”
The rise in anti-Asian hate is rooted in America’s immigration history. Chinese immigration to Boston began in the early 1870s as Chinese immigrants fled from racial persecution on the West Coast and looked for new opportunities. Some settled in Boston’s Chinatown – known as South Cove at the time. But only bachelor men could immigrate after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only law that prohibited people from a specific race and ethnic group from entering the United States.
Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Geary Act of 1892, Boston Chinatown’s population slowly grew, from just 250 residents in 1900 to 800 in 1930. After the exclusion act was repealed in 1943, streams of women and families began to settle there. Parents worked in restaurants, factories, and garment industries while the children roamed freely and played in the street. That’s the Chinatown Yee remembers and loves.
The owner of Eldo Cake House casually walks into the store. It’s 3 p.m. He greets the women in that familiar stern tone of Cantonese. Yee gestures with frantic waving hands for him to sit. The old-timers around the area know him only as Eddie.
Eddie has been the owner of Eldo Cake House for around 20 years. He came to Boston from China in 1973 by himself at 19, working as a waiter, butcher boy and even ran a school for a few months before opening his car shop. Eddie bought Eldo Cake House with some friends as a retirement project.
“When we [first] came, you cannot even have a bakery here.” he says. “Never mind you got dim sum, never mind. You just come in and point with finger, and I want this and this, that’s it.”
The pandemic hurt his business and others, Eddie says.
“Empty, nobody came out,” he says. “But, you know, during that time we still open. Very hard, hard for everybody.”
Eddie remembers the stories of recent rising crime around the area. “Everybody robbing everybody,” he says. The cashier at Eldo Cake House was robbed during the pandemic, and the tip jar was emptied four or five times by thieves.
“Now, it’s getting a little better in the weekend,” he says, “but not in the weekday. A lot of people get used to stay home and work so they don’t come out.” There are far fewer people in the office buildings nearby to come for snacks or lunch.
This has been the fate of many Chinatown businesses post-pandemic. As rent increases and the neighboring Financial District draws closer, the vitality of Chinatown is in the crosshairs. Compared to other busy restaurant areas such as Newbury Street and the North End, where reservations are sometimes required a week or more in advance, Chinatown remains emptier than usual.
“We never been the same,” Eddie says.
But Chinatown has its allies. With more than 80 civic organizations helping fund and offer resources to the Chinatown community, there is still hope for this cultural hub.
One such small organization is The Chinatown Project, co-founded by Aubrey Tang and Billy Chen, which showcases the small voices of Chinatown, from small mom-and-pop shops to second-generation Chinatown kids opening businesses in this new landscape. It uses photography and videography to connect with a broader, younger audience on social media. The Chinatown Projects celebrated its first anniversary this month.
“Seeing the rise of anti-Asian attacks and xenophobia in general in this sort of national reckoning,” Tang says, “me and my partner Billy was just sitting on the dining table and thinking what are ways we can possibly contribute to these communities that have been affected by both these two pandemics – the racism, the disease.” The Chinatown Project was born.
Tang is a 24-year-old graduate student at Dartmouth College, and 28-year-old Chen works as a digital designer in Boston. But their passion for preserving Chinatown stemmed from their childhood experiences.
Chen grew up in Rhode Island, where there wasn’t a Chinatown at all. “[My parents] would bring us over to [Boston’s] Chinatown with our cousins and our large family,” Chen says. “It’s funny because as a kid, you just look at these things, and you’re like it’s just food. It’s not a big deal. You would never think of it as a tradition, or something that is so important to you.”
Tang, too, would visit Chinatown as a kid. “Looking back at it, I wasn’t able to really verbalize it or really put my finger on it,” she says, “but there’s just something so comforting about being in a place amongpeople that look like you, speak similar languages to you, … it just feels right. You feel like you belong here.”
Among their many interviews with business owners, one sticks out to Tang and Chen the most. It was February with Sonny Chan, the owner of Hot Pot Buffet at 70 Beach St.
“He said that the rent prices are just so high, and there’s no people coming in here, ‘I just don’t know if we’re even going to make it to be honest,’” Tang says. “We were kinda trying to pull answers from him, we want that hopeful answer. But in the end we realize this is the reality. They really might not make it until the next month without any other sort of income.”
There is still a sense of resilience and perseverance among Chinatown business owners. Many use the Mandarin phrase, 坚持 (jiān chí), meaning to persevere and persist on.
“It just goes to show that they are still fighting to survive here,” Tang says. “Among all these other things, they are just fighting to even be able to keep their businesses open and continue to support their families. If they don’t have this, what else are they going to do?”
Many of these first-generation business owners did not receive quality educations or learn good English. Cooking became not only an expression of their culture and home, it became a lifeline.
“I think preserving the culture of Chinatown, that’s important to us because we see it in our families, we see it in our food we eat as well, and that’s something we don’t want to see go away,” Chen says.
With a new generation of Asian Americans moving in, preserving Chinatown also includes developing a new pan-Asian and Asian-American culture. Tang has seen a growing number of modern Asian restaurants opening in Chinatown. For example, Brian Moy, a second-generation Chinatown kid, owns popular restaurants Shōjō, BLR, and Ruckus.
“That really goes to show the direction that Chinatown is going in, and how a new generation is starting to take place.” Tang says. “People are changing, our experiences as Asians and Asian Americans are changing … I think it’s necessary for Boston Chinatown in order to bring a new crowd of people in.”
Transformation is coming. But how can change both preserve tradition and integrity, while also developing modern, long-term solutions to keep Chinatown away from hungry business developers? This is the balance that Chinatown is dealing with.
As the nai chas cool and char siu buns are consumed, Yee sits back in her chair and sighs a big sigh.
“If we ever took [Chinatown] out of the American fabric, it’s a big loss,” she says. “It’s the food, it’s the histories; we have a lot to learn about history of Asian-American immigration, the exploitation, the oppression – but the resilience. We survived no matter what.”
Any time that my family gathers together, one thing remains constant: food. As a bold, chaotic, but always unconditionally loving Jewish family, the most pertinent question before each gathering is always “what are we eating?” Spreads of New York bagels (I swear the water makes them different) with the perfect ratio of crispy crust to chewy interior line the counters with every topping you can imagine. Special deliveries from family members in the New York Area are a must, as other bagels simply do not compare. Lox and red onion and capers and dill and every flavor of schmear you can think of sit beside the bagels, all combined to create the perfect breakfast bite. Sweet bagels topped with chocolate or cinnamon sugar partner perfectly with a fresh strawberry cream cheese, while the sharpness of an asiago bagel mingles with the tang of a cream cheese loaded with chives. The bagel is the most versatile, yet underappreciated carbohydrate, a canvas for experimentation at any mealtime.
Immersed in the Jesuit values of Boston College, I often lose sight of my Jewish roots. Just 4% of the Boston College population identifies as Jewish. However, I often am grounded again in my ancestry in the foods I choose to eat. My Sunday morning bagel and cream cheese may seem just as ordinary as the next. For me, though, this bagel has a special meaning. Each bite of my most favorite glutinous treat takes me back to years of family gatherings and time spent with the people I connect with most.
The bagel we know today originated in Poland in the early 17th century. The word “bagel” is derived from the Yiddish word “beygl,” a variation of the German word for “ring.” While you can find a bagel at just about any grocery store, coffee shop, diner, and convenience store, not all bagels are created equal. Some are baked, some are boiled, some are even steamed. Factory bagels often come perfectly circular with a flawless cut out in the middle. Real, handmade bagels, though, often swell so much in cooking they just become a glorified bread roll, with no distinguishable ring shape. Even though the bagel is literally named to look like a ring, I truly believe these hole-less bagels are the best kind. Regional varieties of bagel have even emerged, ranging from the New York style to the Montreal style, and even a St. Louis style. A quintessential part of a weekend brunch, most Americans can say they’ve eaten at least one bagel in the past month, though most could not begin to identify where the round doughy delicacies’ roots lie.
The first bite into a bagel’s crunchy exterior followed by the delight of a doughy interior sparks fireworks in my taste buds—there is simply nothing as fulfilling. As fad diets come in and out and culinary trends progress, the bagel should not fear; it will never lose its seat at Sunday brunch. I hope that it’s rich cultural background will one day rise to the forefront, and those so deeply appreciative of its creation will give credit where credit’s due. Next time you grab your carby-treat, make sure to think back to its 17th century roots across the Atlantic.
Meatless Monday is more than just a catchy slogan and an excuse to make a quick pasta for dinner. Cutting meat from your diet can have a positive impact on the environment—and it may be much easier than you think. While the slow-smoked ribs that you dream about each night may taste really good, it’s worth considering the relationship between your meals and how the food on your plate is produced. The average vegetarian meal can save up to 133 gallons of water; at a rate of three meals, once a week, that number adds up to 20,748 gallons of water saved per year. One day of plant-forward eating also can reduce your carbon footprint by eight pounds.
Incorporating Meatless Mondays Into Your Life
Whether you’re making dinner at home or eating out with your friends and family, dishes without meat are more cost efficient than a steak, burger, or salmon meal. Instead of making an elaborate meal, you can choose a vegetarian option that can cut your time in the kitchen in half. When you’re out at a restaurant, more likely than not, there are several dishes on the menu that are vegetarian and cheaper. With an increasing number of customers that are vegetarian, vegan, or just prefer to not eat meat that they didn’t make, more restaurants are incorporating a whole section of options that you can choose from. Eating meatless meals don’t have to occur on Mondays or even for a full day, but it has been proven to be a financial and environmental addition to your everyday life.
Letting Alternatives Shine
From the Beyond Burger to Tofurky, there are plenty of substitutes on the market that have been made to look and taste like your carnivorous favorites. While these alternatives are more eco-friendly options, they can be quite expensive, especially for full-time students. Meatless Monday is a great opportunity to focus on more traditional vegetarian and vegan staples in their purest forms. Appreciating the flavors and textures of beans, tofu, tempeh, and seitan in dishes (and not trying to trick yourself into thinking your air-fried tofu is a chicken nugget) gives these ingredients their deserved opportunity to shine. Get creative with your spices and herbs, and really take the time to layer flavors as you would with a dish centering meat. As an added bonus, these alternatives are much kinder to your wallet than than most meat products.
Where to Start
If you’re unsure of where to start, look to our Mucho Gusto recipes for some inspiration! Combine Meatless Mondays and Pizza Fridays with these amazing pizza recipes, most of which are meatless. For the colder months, there are some delectable recipes for soups and pasta. Some highlights include a recipe for Veggie Bolognese and another for Sweet Potato Chili.While these are a good starting point, try to step out of your comfort zone and sample some new dishes with meat alternatives or try a new restaurant that features vegetarian and vegan options. A fully vegan restaurant that paved the way for popularity in the meat alternatives business is byChloe., recently rebranded as Beatnic. Take time to explore and slowly incorporate some of these amazing vegetarian dishes into your everyday life.
Meatless Monday is inclusive; you can do as much or as little as you want. This may mean going entirely plant-based and eating a vegan diet once a week. It could mean that you cut out beef, pork, and poultry and instead opt for fish. There is no right or wrong way to limit your meat consumption, so experiment with a few different options to find what best works for you. Regardless of how meatless your Monday really is, making a small effort yields serious benefits.
Imagine hearing the clanging of woks and the sizzle of meats while the aroma of garlic and sweet chillies cling to the sticky, humid air. This is what I call chaotic heaven. Under a gigantic canopy sits huge families, grandparents included, around circular tables covered in dishes like chicken satay, chilli crab, char kway teow noodles, and fishball soup. Or you can simply find old-timers strolling around for good company.
Hawker centres, or food courts, are the heart and soul of Singapore. Growing up in Singapore, nothing beats the cheap eats and seriously faint-worthy food in hawker centres. Each and every stall, peppered all over the country, represents a piece of the community of different races and generations. Hawker centres are a heritage symbol of the multiculturalism of Singapore. But beyond that, it’s a place to gather. When I came to America for college, that aspect of a food community just didn’t exist.
Hawker stalls in Singapore originated from street vendors in the mid-1800s when early settlers set up these stalls with minimal cost and skill. These settlers came from all walks of life—they were Chinese, Malay, Indian, and more. Over time, each cultural dish melded into the unique Singaporean local cuisine we know today. By 1968, the government moved street hawker stalls into licensed centres with proper amenities and sanitation. There are now over 110 hawker centres all over Singapore, some tucked away in apartment buildings as a social gathering place for the neighborhood. These stall owners, or hawkers, can be family-run businesses across generations. The vitality of hawker centres is crucial to Singapore’s cultural heritage.
What if we had hawker centres in America? What would that look like?
In Boston, the closest comparison to a hawker centre would be Time Out Market. The concept is the same—community tables, outdoor seating, and individual stalls with different cuisines to mix and match your orders. However, the prices are very different. You can get a Michelin star meal for as low as $5 at hawker centres!
But beyond just prices, Time Out Market doesn’t emulate the soul of hawker centres. And it boils down to America’s lack of generational connection to food and community sharing in a culture steeped in individualism.
I remember taking my cousins from Australia to a hawker centre. We feasted on dishes like fried carrot cake (my favorite—white radish pastry fried in sweet black sauce with an egg omelette), laksa (rice noodles in a rich and spicy coconut broth), chicken rice (a Singapore classic), and more. You couldn’t see the yellow plastic table beneath all the food. This is how we introduce Singapore when visitors come. The sharing aspect is key. And beyond small tapas in a wildly Americanized Spanish restaurant, I don’t see that level of sharing here. Appetizers, entrees, and side dishes? Just eat anything that’s in front of you! That’s the mindset. Nothing is yours and nothing is mine.
What’s worse, non-American/European dishes lose their authenticity in America. I’m not talking about the small cultural restaurants owned and run by people of color. It’s the places like Time Out Market, marketing off the idea of diverse food selection, that dilute the foods itself to make it more palatable to a white customer base. Places like PF Changs also rub me the wrong way. It’s this blatant ignorance for authenticity that would make the idea of a hawker centre fail in America.
At the same time, is that what we need? Can the concept of traditional cuisines in a community gathering space normalize cultural sharing in a country that’s so afraid to do so? Time Out Market needs a new marketing team.
Fall makes its yearly introduction with an explosion of pumpkin flavored products on Trader Joe’s shelves, a takeover of cinnamon scented candles at Target, and flannels of every color combination in millennial closets. The transition is sudden, all before the leaves truly transform into staggering shades of auburn, burnt orange, and mustard yellow. It’s the season of overpriced warm pumpkin spiced lattes (even though deep down you knew the classic iced latte would’ve satisfied you more) whilst you sit in a quaint cafe to do an hour of work as you watch the leaves graciously fall.
Fall is predictable, yet we gobble it up every year as if a new Trader Joe’s pumpkin spiced waffle and pancake mix (made gluten-free!) will make the season ten times better than it was a year before. But what is it about this consumerist season that engulfs our mind in a daze?
Entering Felicita Kostianis’ 2K double room, there’s a eucalyptus and palm scented candle surrounded by an assortment of mini pumpkins and green streaked squashes. The aura of the room hugs you tightly as you peer up to see fake amber orange leaves flank the ceiling along with the warm glow of fairy lights. All around the kitchen are polka-dot pumpkin printed tea towels as the smell of the apple cider hand soap lingers. By the window sill are slightly nourished plants, and above are acorn and yellow leaves window stickers.
“I think [fall is] the only reason I’m okay with summer ending,” Kostianis says, who certifies herself as a dignified fall lover from New Jersey, “We all hate the cold so we glorify the season before.” Glorification may even be a slight understatement. Especially for someone who did not grow up with the classic American consumerist life.
Clementine Paris, from France, sits with her mouth open as Kostianis beams at the thought of fall. “Halloween is a bit of a thing [in France],” she says, “but it’s a holiday, not a season. America celebrates seasons.”
Perhaps it’s precisely the back to back holidays of fall that makes this season so easy to commercialise – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday. Then again, what other country erupts into a branded fall commercial for three months? It’s not just about the celebration of leaves; we spend time, money, and energyto appreciate the beauty of fall through overpriced apple picking and decor.
In fact, there might even be a psychological reason why fall fanatics boast about the changing season. The inherent coziness of the season linked with cooler temperatures extract a sense of nostalgia and calm. Holidays and traditions anchored in this season bring up happier memories and the reassurance of safety. Spring doesn’t give as many cozy vibes, and for many, it’s a season of stuffy noses, tissues, and eye drops. The summer is wrongly spent worrying about beach bodies and obsessing over tropical vacations. In such a state of solace during fall, it’s no wonder brands reach deep down into our pockets,and trick us into believing that buying an extra fluffy blanket, this time with pastel pumpkins, will soothe our minds.
“Yeah, consumerism in America is obvious,” says Paris, “but it’s easy to get used to. As much as they overdo fall, Americans overdo everything so it doesn’t come as a shock.”
America seems like the land of over-the-top marketing, but you’re immediately immersed, or rather brainwashed, by the consumerist culture that the constant Instagram ads may not even be that surprising.
Paris grabs a glass of apple cider, freshly produced and purchased from a recent trip to Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts. She takes a swig, licks her lips, and makes a funny face, saying, “Apple cider is just apple juice made with not so great apples.”
There are still some things that are too fall for Paris.
Located in the heart of Boston is Haymarket, an outdoor farmer’s market which dates back to around 1830. Between historic pubs and restaurants, stalls line the cobbled streets of Haymarket, boasting a wide assortment of various fruits, vegetables, and other fresh produce. Haymarket opens every Friday and Saturday, from dawn to dusk, enticing passers-by with the vibrant and bustling atmosphere surrounding the outdoor market. Produce is sold for some of the best deals in Boston, and further encouragement is provided as after around 3pm on Saturday afternoon, all remaining produce is further marked down. In addition to the fresh fruits and vegetables of Haymarket, specialty grocers located along Blackstone street offer a variety of cheeses, eggs, fish, Halal meats, and more.
The concept of flavor and preservation reached Europe around the time of the Roman Empire. By the first century AD, Rome had a thriving trade in spices, and pepper was one of its most prized possessions. It had become such a valuable good that, during the fifth century when the empire was in decline and almost invaded by the barbaric Visigoths, the Romans offered 3,000 pounds of pepper to buy back their city.
Like the Romans many centuries before me, I felt as if I introduced flavor into my palette for the first time on a recent trip to France. In Paris’s eleventh arrondissement, I ate a famous dish of boeuf au poivre in the small, yet renowned, Bistrot Paul Bert.
When I asked the waitress what was in the sauce, she looked at me dumbfounded and slowly enunciated the terms au poivre with her finger on the menu, as if she were teaching a child how to read. When the waitress dashed off, I turned my eyes to the middle of the table and stared confusingly at the wooden pepper grinder: that’s it?
For years, I thought of pepper as the last resort for bad food when salt was not doing the trick. But after Bistrot Paul Bert, not only did I crave to taste the peppercorn sauce again, I wanted to make my own boeuf au poivre.
After an early trip to the nearest market, I began preparing the recipe by setting two tablets of boeuf bouillon into boiling water. With tear-filled eyes, I chopped one onion and one shallot, threw them into the broth, and stirred while adding some fresh herbs and three cow bone fragments. Then, I let the broth stew and began grinding the peppercorns. When I released the peppercorns from the épicier’s brown bag, I admired their appearance; they were the color of tall grass in an untamed field. In a silver bowl, I carried the peppercorns from the countertop to the stove while they swayed side to side, as if dancing—but their waltz ended as soon as they were crushed into dust.
Afterwards, I poured 200 microliters of the stewed broth into the skillet and mixed it with 150 microliters of butter and 150 microliters of heavy cream. Finally, when the sauce began to get thicker, I added the last ingredient: a handful of pressed green peppercorns. I took a deep breath and gave myself a little pat on the back before picking up the wooden spoon to taste my creation.
Closing my eyes and touching the spoon with my tongue, I expected to be transported to the bistrot. Instead, 3,000 pounds of pepper punched, kicked, and tore off my tastebuds. My nose began to run, and I started panting like a dog. The words, hot, hot, hot, were all I could utter.
Just when I was about to give up, I looked at the raw morceaux des boeuf and decided to season them with salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, and 10 microliters of butter. Turning the steaks on the stove four to six times, I wanted to leave them as tender as possible but not too bloody. Once the meat was finished, it was pink and moist like the one at Bistrot Paul Bert.
I looked at the meat satisfied but understood that I had not done the pepper sauce justice. I thought of her, the French waiter pointing at the menu, and started anew. I poured the broth, sobbed over the onions and shallots, measured the cream and butter, put a dash of cognac and wine for luck, and added 50 microliters of green pepper instead of a handful. The new sauce simmered and thickened as cold sweat ran down my back and my stomach growled.
After giving the wooden spoon a final turn, I pulled it up to my lips, hesitated, and, finally, had a taste. I suddenly felt the weight of 3,000 pounds of peppers off my shoulders, and heard the deep, rowdy screams of the Romans and all the waiters at Bistrot Paul Bert cheering triumphantly. We had won back our city.