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The Art of the Crab 

“What you want,” the aunty lingers behind me with hawkish eyes and a tight grip around her folded up paper pad with splatters of oil across the surface. 

“We need a little more time,” my Dad replies. The aunty taking our order huffs, shakes her head, and turns back to take another table’s order. With a repeated stern tone, she goes, “What you want.” 

This is part of everyday interaction in Singapore. To the point, no dilly dallying, and, above all, no “How are you?”. But you don’t need that hospitality. The energy of the steamy yet open air restaurant with shouts of Hokkien thrown this way and that will surely make you look past it. There isn’t any time for fake niceties. There is a mission to complete. 

Keng Ek Seafood is tucked into the corner of Alexandra Hawker Centre in Bukit Merah, Singapore. Off to the side of the check-in desk are rows of tanks full of an array of fish and, their speciality, crab. As a young girl I would tap the glass of the tanks, jolting the fish, some even splashing above the surface because there is quite literally no room to swim around. The crabs, however, were much calmer. Not even a pretend punch to the glass tank would elicit a single muscular movement from the crabs. Perhaps because they were bound up by zip ties. 

The crabs awaiting their impending deaths were the most peaceful component of this buzzing establishment. There is not a moment of silence in the spurts of Mandarin, Hokkien, maybe some Cantonese, bouncing between the aunties, the cooks, the customers, the children, the old grandpa who sits alone planting his barefoot leg on the chair with crab shells littered across his table. There’s a careful system to this organized chaos. Aunties serve around five tables each, running around plopping greasy hor fun noodles onto large round tables covered in plastic wraps, then wrapping the plastic covers up when the meal is over, encasing all the juices of bones and spilled gravy, revealing yet another layer of plastic for the next group to dine on only a few minutes later. 

It’s a wonder how we Singaporeans can eat piping hot food in an even piping hotter environment. But you simply can’t miss out on chili crab on this little urban island. Chili crab is a dish loved and cherished by everyone, a national treasure sitting beside the infamous Hainanese Chicken Rice. If anything, it’s a ritualistic practice. Keng Ek is a cult favorite in my family. We always order the classic chili crab and the salted egg crab.

Chili crab is an entire steamed mud crab doused in a chili and tomato-based gravy that seeps into every crevice of the shell. Eggs and a cornstarch mixture makes the gravy thick to a syrupy texture. The beauty of chili crab is that it’s served with the shell on. Most chili crab restaurants will hand you an apron and plastic gloves. But the bare handed labor of love that goes into eating chili crab could never be beaten. I remember my Mum picking every leg for tiny bits of crab meat with her fingers and placing them haphazardly onto my plate where I would douse them back into that gravy to soak up all that savory goodness. For a salted egg crab, my younger brother’s personal favorite as he would practically eat up almost the entire crab to himself, the decadent sauce comes from salted egg yolks, a golden sauce with a hint of curry leaf spice laced throughout. 

The origins of chili crab is a well known tale. In the mid 1950s, Cher Yam Tan wanted to reinvent her stir fried crab recipe by replacing her usual tomato sauce with a bottle of chili sauce. Like most national food treasures in Singapore, Cher Yam Tan’s dish began as a humble street cart dish. She and her husband would sell chili crab in pushcarts along the East Coast, eventually opening a restaurant in 1962 called Palm Beach. The dish became wildly popular, trickling to other restaurant menus across the country. One of which was Hooi Kok Wah’s restaurant, Dragon Phoenix, opened in 1963. Hooi Kok Wah was considered one of the “four heavenly kings” of Chinese chefs in Singapore. He created a more sour version of Tan’s chili crab by adding vinegar, lemon juice, sambal, tomato paste, and egg white. His creation became the more common version of Singapore chili crab.

The popularity of chili crab should not be underestimated. It’s recommended to reserve a crab ahead of time at Keng Ek Seafood as they often run out daily for the walk-in crowd. Truly, Keng Ek has one of the best crabs in the country. The sauce itself won’t burn your mouth, it’s a manageable spice with a slight sweetness and freshness provided by the crab. There’s a hint of vinegar but not overbearing where the dish is more sour than it is savory and sweet. The crab is incredibly tender with no lingering fishiness embedded in the meat. My mum no longer picks my crab meat for me. I’ve created my own routine. You have to know which part of the legs and claws to crack, where the hidden meats could be, and how to scratch every shell hollow. Even if there’s a centimeter long crabmeat left hanging on a stray leg, you slurp it up anyway. As you eat in focused silence, sweat beads on your forehead and down your neck as the Singapore heat starts to creep up that not even the meager fan above can save you. The best part is dipping golden mantou buns, these pillowy bread buns that can be fried or steamed and soaks up all the juices of the gravy. There should be nothing left on the plate but shells. 

Keng Ek Seafood will always hold a special place in my family’s hearts. Even during the pandemic, we remained loyal by ordering two whole crabs, picking it up at the hawker center, and driving back as fast as we could to retain the delicious warmth. Over the summer, my family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia for good. It was only fitting that our last local meal would be at Keng Ek after two years of closed in-person dining. As we strolled into Keng Ek, I recognized that stunning chaos, the smell of chili blazing my nose. The aunty in front of me snaps her fingers and says, “Have reservation or not?”
 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Recipes are Simple

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Reflections on Chinatown, A Year Later

Last year, I wrote a piece about Boston’s Chinatown. A year ago Chinatown was a ghost town, ransacked by the struggles pandemic living brought and beaten down by the bombardment of Asian hate that swarmed the media and the streets. I remember the crowds of old East Asian men huddled around chess tables under Chinese paper lanterns. I remember Cynthia Yee, a blogger and writer dedicated to depicting life on 116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown. She would greet everyone in Eldo Cake House like a familiar aunty walking into her nieces and nephews home, shouting brave Cantonese as she ordered egg tarts, char siew buns, and Hong Kong style milk tea. Eldo Cake House, a staple Chinatown bakery for 50 years, sits on 36 Harrison Avenue. The milk tea was wonderfully aromatic and cupped nostalgically with one clammy palm, and in the other a tender char siew bun with an aroma that would fill the small bakery of only three wooden tables. When Cynthia strides into the shop, a flurry of Cantonese choruses out of the ladies behind the counter, wearing their signature forest green aprons. I sat there, right in the heart of Eldo Cake House, with Cynthia Yee a year ago, laughing at the jokes about old misogynistic Asian men, shedding a tear about the deterioration of our culture, rallying over the fight to preserve Chinatown. 

But as I returned to Eldo Cake House just last week, I was met with boarded up windows and a meager laminated for-sale sign taped on its front door. 

Although it’s heartening to see Chinatown crowded once again, full of college students looking for their Asian food fix, or families wandering around to enjoy the nice fall weather, seeing the boarded up windows of Eldo Cake House was a gut punch, and a reminder that this neighborhood is changing. 

Eddie was the bakery owner of Eldo Cake House. He had a stern aura to him, the type molded by decades of heads down hard work. When I spoke with him last year, he recalled struggling with the rising cost of living, particularly in rent where he had to sell half the lease to another store in order to keep costs down. “Very hard, hard for everybody,” he said. 

Eldo Cake House had an unassuming exterior. Below the forest green banner are floor to ceiling windows, where you can look into the various pastries, buns, and fruit cakes. Eldo’s cakes were neatly slathered in crisp white cream, with an array of glistening berries arranged on top in floral and elegant patterns, hinting at the moist yellow sponge cake inside with layers of buttercream. But sweets aren’t all this bakery was known for. Those char siew buns were delicately crisp on the outside but pillowy soft in the middle, the pork marinated in this thickened sweet and savory sauce. We ordered two more. 

The story of disappearing beloved businesses like Eldo Cake House isn’t new, and it won’t stop here either. It goes back to a wave of urban renewal in cities across the country throughout the 1950s and 1970s. Cynthia herself is a victim of urban renewal. In 1962, the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-93 highways reaped a seam in the fabric of Chinatown’s homes and communities. Approximately 1,200 residential units were evicted and forced to scatter, most ended up in the Combat Zone. 

“I was evicted – because of the highway! I ended up in the Combat Zone because I was evicted from Hudson Street,” Cynthia said. “And that was a major trauma. My Indian friend who is a young writer said to me, “Dear Cynthia, how will you ever forgive a highway?” I said, “I don’t think I have.” That’s why I write, that’s my revenge.”

The Combat Zone was an area of Boston’s Chinatown characterized as a chaotic red-light district that flourished in the 1970s until it’s cleanup in the 1990s. “It was the end of my childhood,” Cynthia recalled. 

Cynthia lived in a tenant apartment never graced by sunlight. Neon lights of naked girls and live shows flowed through the trash-laden streets. Constant beats of strip club music reverberated through the walls, pierced by wailing sirens through the night. Every morning the granite steps to their house had to be scrubbed from the Combat pleasure seekers roaming the night before. Her story is only one of many iterations of displacement throughout the years. Chinatown isn’t the same village community Cynthia grew up in. 

Although the neighborhood’s population has increased by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, the Asian population has decreased over 10 percent, and the white population has doubled. The consistent pushing out of Chinatown’s working-class residents is driven by a rapid rise in housing prices. In Boston specifically, Chinatown saw one of the fastest-growing sales prices in 2017, increasing by $285,000. With an average household of $26,280 for Chinatown working-class families, luxury apartments are simply not an option. Even affordable housing projects are unaffordable, as these projects are based on residents making 80 to 100 percent of Boston’s median income, which is much higher than the average in Chinatown. 

With such forces against Chinatown, gentrification not only changes the neighborhood’s demographic, it also disrupts Chinatown’s cultural history. 

I stood in front of the now boarded up Eldo Cake House. I wondered where Eddie went, whether he finally comfortably retired like he always dreamed of, or his business was driven to the ground like so many other local gems throughout the years. I walked a couple blocks down to buy a dozen egg tarts from Bao Bao Bakery, hoping this one won’t suffer the same fate. 

Cover photo courtesy of wgbh


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Debunking MSG: The Secret to Umami 

I watch the dried noodles plunge into the boiling water. Broken pieces bubble up to the surface doing their little happy dance. In my hands are two sachets, one for powder seasoning, and the other for a delectable mixture of kecap manis, sambal chili, and seasoning oil (of what, I don’t know). All these ingredients together will create the most umami-rich instant noodles I’ve ever encountered: indomie. This is the stuff of my childhood. 

Indomie is the instant version of mie goreng: fried Indonesian noodles. Its richness normally comes from sweet, aromatic kecap manis, which has the depth of molasses with the savouriness of classic soy sauce. It’s the heart and soul of Indonesian cooking. But Indomie takes the flavors up another notch with the addition of a beloved ingredient: MSG. MSG enhances everything enticing in mie goreng, giving it a slight savory punch after every bite.

When I turned 13 years old, I suddenly saw MSG not as the friendly addition to my noodles, but as an evil substance disguised in benign powder form. As our bodies change in the confusing midst of puberty, so did my concern over health—or rather, the aesthetics of health. My mother would scold me for pouring the entire MSG packet into my Indomie, as if cutting half would save my health, or would somehow cancel out the years of using a full packet. Some of my white friends would tell stories of their mothers consuming MSG in their Chinese food and having headaches, or even heart issues, only a few hours afterwards. Diet magazines insisted that MSG was a health-clogging substance produced in Chinese factories. And I believed them. 

Let’s start here: MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It was discovered in 1907 by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda. He explored the tastes of rich foods like kelp and meat, coming across a salt form of the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate is found in all kinds of food, and is even synthesized in our own body. MSG is simply a soluble form of glutamate. 

This amino acid can naturally be found in tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, and parmesan, and is the secret ingredient to what we call umami. Ikeda identified a fifth dimension of flavor when trying kombu dashi, a rich Japanese broth made of kelp. Umami covers the tongue with a long-lasting sensation of ultimate savouriness and fullness. It is a depth of flavor achieved by no other. Think of the richness of a miso soup, its broth coating your lips, or a classic Italian pomodoro with fresh tomatoes and basil dancing on your tongue. It’s core ingredient? Glutamate. 

For years, I’d put just half of the Indomie seasoning packet, tasting half of the flavor, and half of the richness. This demonization of MSG can be traced all the way back to the 1960s, when the New England Journal of Medicine published an incident involving Cantonese physician, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who experienced a dizzying array of symptoms after eating at a Chinese restaurant. The article insisted that MSG was to blame. From there came a bombardment of similar anecdotal stories, further legitimized by the New York Times article titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” How did one man’s word become a health gospel?

Beyond a scientific mishap, the stigmatization of MSG has a direct correlation to the racism and xenophobia experienced by Asian cultures in the United States. Saying no to MSG not only became ingrained in the popular health and wellness lexicon, but a symptom to the deeper disregard of Asian customs and traditions. Like everything else associated with Asian culture, Asian food, specifically Chinese food, was shunned away as dirty and unhealthy. For generations, Chinatowns across the country were associated with slums and blighted areas, a place for sexual deviancy and crime, where children are left to play on the dirty streets surrounded by rotting fruit. This was the narrative created by white America, and it is ignorant to assume that these perceptions don’t trickle down to every facet of life—including food. 

MSG-related health concerns have since been debunked. MSG is safe for consumption, and cause no headaches, tremors, or heart palpitations—all of which were originally reported from a 6 person anecdotal “study.” But there is still a hesitation against MSG that lingers in food literature. Although umami is an accepted descriptor, to connect umami and MSG, and to dare to say something tastes better with the addition of MSG, seems like food journalist malpractice. 

One day, MSG will slowly get its good reputation back. Yet the narrative of “bad Chinese food” still remains. Bat soup? Covid? We will not forget. 

There’s a painful history behind the foods we eat and the stories we tell about them. As a gustatory community, we have a responsibility to decolonise food literature and approach non-white cultures with the same level of respect and dignity, breaking away from the cycles of shame and the erasure of culture in a country that only made room for the status quo. Maybe sprinkling a little MSG in your meals is the way to go. 

Alas, around three years ago I decided to pour the entire contents of that heavenly umami-filled, MSG-packed seasoning into my Indomie. My taste buds and soul are happier for it. And I have never looked back.

Cover photo courtesy of Choosing Chia

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Cheese and War

Late night cravings, post-night out meals, and the feral need to fill yourself with as much calorically dense food as possible only leads to one thing: Cheese. It’s at the center of everything greasy. Cheese fries, a Big Mac, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, anything that constitutes as string pull galore is certified late-night meal jackpot. That list doesn’t include Asian food, perhaps because it’s a little more laborious to take out the wok and fry up a beef cheung fun – although if you’re experienced, this meal takes seconds. Perhaps, too, there’s a stereotype that most Asian food has an aversion to cheese. Yet you’ll find stringy,  processed all-American mozzarella in just about every trendy rendition of Korean classics. Cheesy tteokbokki, Budae Jjigae, Dalkgalbi, cheesy instant ramen noodles, and the list goes on. Why cheese? And why Korea?

We tend to see food as this steady pillar in our lives, unchanged and unaffected by our geopolitical surroundings. Food is a nostalgic memory, a familiarity we can easily recall throughout lifetimes. Traditions and recipes are passed down from generation to generation. In fact, we rarely see cultural dishes as a reflection of society. But society and history does have a strong hand in creating new dynamics and cuisines. As banal as cheese is to the everyday gustatory experience, cheese in Korean food actually has a deeper, and darker, history tied to it. 

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Two days later, the United States entered the Korean War supporting the Republic of Korea (South Korea). This war is considered the “forgotten war,” among many Americans. How much do you know about the Korean War? Despite more than 40,000 American soldiers, one million South Koreans, 200,000 North Koreans, and 800,000 Chinese soldiers killed, the Korean War has left little mark on the collective historical memory of many Americans. 

During the war, US military camps were littered all across South Korea. Due to war rations and devastations, poor villages living near US base camps could smuggle American military rations to make stew, or anything they can conjure up. Budae-Jjigae – literally army-base stew – was born out of this war-time food scarcity, containing spam, hot dogs, Korean vegetables, and other vegetables with spicy seasoning. This war-time meal has evolved since its dark origins, through the addition of traditional Korean ingredients like rice cakes, gojuchang, and an assortment of noodles. Oh, of course you can enjoy your Budae-Jjigae with slices of mozzarella cheese. 

From a desperate need of survival, this dish has been revived into Korea’s most well-loved comfort meal. Turning what was a painful memory, and still a vivid memory to so many Koreans today, into a nationally celebrated dish that has spread internationally thanks to the rise of Korean k-pop and drama media. With the evolution of the dish, Budae-Jjihae is, rightly, a reflection of the evolution of South Korea: from surviving a disastrous and bloody war marked by decades of separation and political turmoil still felt today, to a society that celebrates its roots and culture and looks ahead at its bright future. 

This isn’t all to say cheese is a needed or even celebrated addition to Korean cuisine. Its mere presence is a testament to the American military imperialism of that time, that US military influence is still deeply ingrained in every facet of post-colonial societies after WWII. There are still 15 US military bases stationed in South Korea. In fact, the Korean War was never technically solved, it’s been in a political standstill, in armistice, for nearly 70 years. 

Food can be marked by nostalgia, remembrance, of happier and simpler times as the gustatory literature often pronounces. But there are many Budae-Jjiigae’s out there, of food combinations that don’t make quite sense to its cultural integrity, that reveal a sinister history buried in our cultural lexicon. 

Cover photo courtesy of Mai Cookbook

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Where is Home?

I landed with the rain hitting the asphalt airport lane as the tires screeched down the lane after a tumultuous descent. The sky bathed in comforting dark gray and thunder began its steady rhythm. “Welcome to Singapore,” the speaker said. I was home after a year and I felt relieved, excited, nostalgic, but, funnily enough, and something I didn’t expect, strangeness. 

I’m home! The place where I grew up, the memories buried and pinned in different places around this island. But I looked out the double paned window and felt almost nervous, like meeting an old friend after years of not speaking to each other, trying to rekindle something when the chapter already closed. 

Within the year away from home, I’ve made a life outside of Singapore. College was almost like what it was before a raging pandemic stole two years away from us. We started to go out, meet new people, smile, laugh, and touch one another with sheer joy that life felt freeing again. After spending a year and a half in and out of Singapore quarantines, lockdowns, social restrictions, more quarantines, and more dwindling hope – coming back here again with the restrictions finally lifted was like stepping into a whole new world that I barely recognized. 

But even as this city becomes more of a stranger, food is the familiar heart and soul. Everyone has that one dish the family made for a celebration, or even the go-to meal for a Netflix night-in; or you’re a loyalist to that one cozy restaurant in your hometown where you greet the chef like an old cousin. People can change, friendships come and go, the city evolves, but the food remains. 

When I think of Singapore I think of sizzling char kway teow and sweet kecap laced with the smoke of the wok. I think of creamy laksa noodles bursting with prawn flavor that harmonizes with the coconut broth. I think of chili crab paired with fluffy mantou buns dipped in a sweet and tangy chili sauce that dribbles down your plastic disposable apron. I think of Pietra Santa, the Italian restaurant my family has dined in for over a decade – their truffle and sausage fettuccine will always be no.1 in my eyes (and stomach). 

Despite all my friends no longer here, my displaced foreign accent after spending too long in America, and my lagging sense of direction, I could still count on getting an ice cold avocado and sugar cane juice from down the street. 

As international students, home is often where your feet are on the ground at that moment. My friend Cindy Gotama, BC’23, grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, but spent her last two years of High School in Singapore before hauling herself to Boston. Home is a weird feeling too. There isn’t one place that feels quite right. 

“I never know how to explain what home is,” says Cindy. “I love my life in Boston. It’s a home. I miss Jakarta. That’s my childhood. I miss Singapore, that was also my home for a time.” 

The first time I met Cindy was in Singapore. We devoured Din Tai Fung xiao long baos, soy sauce noodles, and egg fried rice, and black sesame buns to polish the meal off. Din Tai Fung was the go-to spot. Need a late night meal? Hungover meal? Brunch? Afternoon tea? It was even a place I would eat at three times in a row and still not be sick. 

Yet going back to such a cult favorite, it wasn’t as exciting as it used to be. The meal was tinged with a nostalgic longing of our childhoods, a reminder that we’re reaching the start of our early adulthood, and that eating the same meal three times in a row might not be the most adult thing to do. 

“When I’m in Boston, I crave Indonesian food. I want actual nasi goreng and es campur,” Cindy says. “But when I’m back in Asia, I want my life back in Boston. My friends, the routine, even the food places I’m now obsessed there!” 

A 2014 study conducted on mice actually confirmed that our sense of taste directly triggers positive and negative memories or a particular location – home. Our brains are able to associate food with our past experiences. The power of food memory involves all five senses – in that sense, food never becomes a stranger to you unlike a physical location can. It’s what makes one dish the family favorite above all the other ones.  Maybe the question isn’t so much as where is home; rather, what is home? Home doesn’t need to be tethered to room, a house, a town, a city – home evolves as you outgrow memories and experience something totally new. That strangeness I felt was toward a place, a place where the memories remain but are somewhat distant because the girl in those memories I don’t recognize anymore. I’ve outgrown Singapore? Perhaps a bowl of vinegary fishball mee pok noodles will cheer me up. Food is home.

Cover photo courtesy of Din Tai Fung

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Erewhon: A Wellness Trap

There’s a certain pretentiousness that clings in the air when you walk into the oh-so-luxurious and exclusive Erewhon. Shelves explode with a muted color palette that only millennial and Gen-z graphic designers can achieve, a mix of warm-toned mauves and oranges with art deco influences, and a retro font to go with it. Tiny boxes of neatly packed and well-massaged kale along with pre-cut cups of fruit are begging to be picked up for an on-the-go snack of at least $15. Beside the to-go-bar, what seems like hundreds of kombucha bottles line the fridge in those same muted colors, a dizzying array of choice in a single drink form. Looking closer, each label has some kind of combination of vegan, gluten-free, immunity-boosting, non-GMO, or soy-free, as if the majority of its customers are allergic to at least one food group. This is Erewhon, the rich-people simulation of grocery shopping – but how did Erewhon make its rise to fame, and why are people like us – “the normal, everyday citizens” – so entranced by it? 

If you don’t know already, this celebrity-raved grocery store has gained much attraction over the last couple of years, particularly Los Angeles, where it now boasts six locations in the county area. As stated on their website, “Through our markets, we endeavor to provide exceptional organic products that inspire good decision-making and healthier communities.” And when they mean “exceptional”, they mean exorbitantly overpriced groceries. Yet despite the price tag, Erewhon is every clean-girl’s aesthetic dream, and has culminated in an almost-cult following on social media. 

The Making of Erewhon

Although this chain grocery store took off during the pandemic, its origins humbly began in 1966 as a natural foods store. And, surprise, it was founded in Boston by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The Japanese couple pioneered the macrobiotic diet, with Michio busy fermenting foods right in his basement. Erewhon provided exclusive organic produce and stock from Japan imported by the Kushis, focused mainly on organic and fermented foods. 

Erewhon then made its move to the West Coast, where it first opened in the early 70s. In 1975, the Kushis sold the business. Since then, the Boston location has closed, but the business kept its goal of exclusivity and niche throughout the generations of ownership. 

The celebrity magnet store we know today has blossomed under its current owners, Tony and Josephine Antoci, who oversaw the store’s California takeover since rapid expansion in 2011. Down to its business model, Erewhon strives to stock entirely organic and non-GMO products, even partnering with local businesses, such as biodynamic farms to small-shop vendors in what Tony describes as “craftsmen.” 

But more than just a grocery store, Erewhon is an experience, a community devoted to kombucha, among other things. Even the name itself is an anagram of “nowhere” from Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel of a utopian society. That elusive and otherworldly community only adds to the illusion of a high-class community, one that came together in the face of a pandemic. 

During Covid-19, Erewhon adapted quickly: opening early for senior citizens, offering a dedicated tonic bar that offers immunity-boosting shots, and even giving out chlorophyll water for free. Among other safety measures, Erewhon became a paparazzi hotspot to sneak a snapshot of A-list celebrities on their weekly grocery runs during the pandemic. 

Marketing Wellness 

Although the branding of natural foods has been at its genesis core, Erewhon’s rise into the limelight follows a growing trend, and now an entire industry, of wellness that seeps into every marketing strategy in the lifestyle realm. No longer are buzzwords like “diet” and “bikini-body” used in health marketing, as the rise in body positivity subserves the highly toxic diet culture of the early 2000s. At the same time, has wellness co-opted diet culture, remarketing it into something more sophisticated? 

The wellness industry is now worth $1.5 trillion dollars. It encompasses physical health, fitness, mental health, and even spiritual health. The wellness industry expands the old fitness world, where abs and low-carb diets were all the rage. Wellness is, supposedly, better than that. 

This switch in consumer interest from physical to holistic wellness profoundly changed the way we look at food. Clean-eating is simply the second wave of an adaptable diet culture that continuously markets off of people’s desire to lose weight. But instead of in-your-face calorie restriction, like the famed and failed Atkins diet, food now revolves around the obsession over “clean” labels like gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO – sounds familiar? 

Food is reduced to its nutritional value and gain, with little emphasis on the community food brings, or even acknowledging complex and often joyful experiences with food as human beings. Juice detoxes are to clear the mind, fermented foods alleviates gut issues linked with anxiety, organic and non-processed food helps with depression – these are the practices of marketing wellness, and it’s working. In the words of Naomi Wolf from her book The Beauty Myth, “health makes good propaganda.” 

The Wellness Trap

Erewhon is simply the pinnacle of this wellness trap. On top of following clean-eating trends, Erewhon takes it a step further by selling astronomical prices to an exclusive clientele, making wellness a brand of wealth. Other stores like WholeFoods and Trader Joe’s sell the appearance of wellness just as strategically with a broader audience. 

As much as wellness has reversed the more severe damages of diet culture, with its emphasis over holistic health rather than physical appearance, wellness remains a marketing strategy to sell to us: the consumers. Yet still, in a world where food remains restrained with restrictive labels disguised as health, we are still miles away from approaching food with sheer joy without the whispers of punishment.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I guided by health regulations that aren’t related to my own physical needs? Is my relationship with food transactional? Do I think eating a certain dish makes or breaks my wellbeing? Am I listening to myself or the industry? 

Taking a deeper look at Erewhon’s massive following provides a lens to understand the inner workings of the consumerist mind toward wellness. After all, health is priceless, or rather you can’t put a price tag on health – so why not pay for a $17 blue smoothie  in exchange for glowing skin?

Cover photo courtesy of Erewhon

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I Communicate Through Food

It’s been three years since I’ve been back in stuffy Jakarta, Indonesia. Motorbikes swarm your vision as you inch and inch down choking traffic. Along the pavements are warung stalls selling some seriously slurp-worthy and fragrant bakmie ayam (chicken noodles) or bubur ayam (chicken porridge), all with a healthy dose of sambal chili and an attractive cheap price tag. How I missed the taste of sambal burning my tongue, and tempeh doused in a sweet sauce of kecap manis (not how trendy white vegans make their tempeh). How I missed the springiness of the noodles in mie goreng with a perfectly fried and crispy egg to grace the top. I missed the creaminess of spicy peanut sauce mixed together with a salad and rice cakes – gado gado is pretty much the only source of vegetables I have in this chaotic city. Now that I am back working for a dream internship in Jakarta, I took it all in, devoured every dish I’ve been craving over the years because God knows you can’t find even the slightest depth of flavor like this in Boston. 

Yet Jakarta isn’t my home. I’m Indonesian, yes, but I grew up in Singapore almost my entire life. Indonesian cuisine stood hand in hand with my childhood, but the capital city itself remains a stranger, a stubborn cousin at best. 

Apart from my apparent separation anxiety from Indonesian food, I was also separated from my extended family for three years. As I walked into my Oma’s home after work, a home littered with memorabilia, or simply pure junk collecting dusk (we never ask), I was immediately greeted with an array of dishes set on the dining table covered by a mosquito basket. 

“Halo halo,” my Oma would say, and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. “Sit sit, eat, what you want to eat, Bel?” 

Oma doesn’t speak great English, and I don’t speak great Bahasa. She tries for me, and I try for her. 

“Iya Oma, saya laper bangat. (Yes Oma, I’m so hungry)” I’d reply back. It’s not often my Oma and I get to spend time one on one. Often the adults, my parents, uncle, and aunt, fill up the conversation and translate what I say to Oma. This time, the kitchen fell quiet as Oma lifted the mosquito cover revealing about 10 dishes sprawled before me. Otak otak (fish cakes – my childhood), sayur lodeh (vegetable soup – my favorite, she knows), siu mai dumplings, har gow dumplings, eggplants cooked with sambal, and a bowl of freshly picked mangoes from her garden already waiting on the side when it comes to dessert. 

Oma asked me about school, the food in Boston, whether I will stay in America after graduation, and I answered swiftly with her cooking unashamedly stuffed in my mouth. But apart from the usual grandma catch-up questions, we ate in silence. It wasn’t the awkward, loud silence that sounded like a broken speaker reverberating between us. I like my Oma enough where silence is welcomed. 

I knew from years of experience that complimenting Oma’s cooking is the way to her heart. Our silence would only break from my incessant “mmms” as I sample each dish with my bed of white rice, and everytime Oma would smile and continue eating her food. 

I told her it’s been so long since I had good Indonesian food, every bite I took tasted better than what I had imagined all this time. Immediately, we had this understanding. We don’t say I’ve missed you, even though it’s been three years. It’s not in the Asian family lingo. But we do enjoy each other’s cooking and appreciate our culture’s cuisine together. My “mmms” to the otak otak is an extension to an “I miss you” to Oma, and all the memories associated with this neatly packed chewy fish cake wrapped in flaky and fragrant banana leaves, how Oma used to peel them for me when I was younger and stack otak otak on my plate, how it would always be the first dish I’m greeted with whenever I’m back. Food isn’t just sustenance. It isn’t even just culture. It’s a way of communicating that encompasses memories and emotions more than words can describe. In the same way Americans give chicken noodle soup to their sick children, my parents gave me the Indonesian rendition, soto ayam (chicken soup with vermicelli noodles). Each dish has meaning not only on a personal level, but symbolizes a family or societal tradition as a whole. Even though I can’t speak fluent Bahasa, my Oma and I still had a conversation of sorts. Even when I struggle with my national identity, food is at the heart of my Indonesian understanding.

Cover photo courtesy of CookPad

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PSA: Fortune Cookies Aren’t Chinese

Those thin, wafer-like crackers with a soft tint of yellow and a subtle taste of vanilla folded gently to encase a rather enigmatic yet oddly comforting rolled up paper fortune has become an icon of Chinese American restaurants. Three billion cookies are made each year almost entirely in the United States, but the origins of fortune cookies didn’t come from China nor did it come from Chinese Americans. The roots of fortune cookies can actually be traced to Japan. So how were fortune cookies adopted into Chinese American food culture? It’s a story about immigration. 

The emblematic folded shape of the fortune cookie was found in 1870s Kyoto by researcher Yasuko Nakamachi. She gathered evidence of these cookies in family bakeries owned by generations outside a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. Instead of commercialized vanilla scents, these cookies were made of miso and sesame resulting in a darker cookie. Nakamachi is the crowned expert in the history of the fortune cookie. She used old documents and even illustrations that referenced the traditional fortune cookie known as “tsujiura senbei” in Japanese. Instead of a paper fortune enclosed inside the hollows of the cookie, Japanese fortune cookies pinched the fortunes into the folds of the cookie. 

Anyhow, this is where immigration changed the fates of these centuries-old Kyoto cookies. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese workers from entering the country, the cheap labor market was replaced by an influx of Japanese immigrants in the 1880s and early 1890s coming into Hawaii and California. These cookies started popping up in several Japanese bakeries—one in San Francisco called the Japanese Tea Garden (traced back as the original vanilla and buttermilk flavoring) and three in Los-Angeles called Fugetsu-Do, Umeya, and the Hong Kong Noodle Company. Japanese immigrants actually opened up Chinese restaurant businesses. 

Even as the fortune cookie traveled from Japan to America, the fusion between Japanese and Chinese businesses was already taking place. Jennifer Lee traced immigration patterns of the fortune cookie in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. She observed that Americans at the time of Japanese immigration in the 1890s opened Chinese restaurants rather than their own cuisine simply because Americans weren’t big fans of Japanese food like raw fish. 

However, the crossover of Chinese businesses run by Japanese owners doesn’t fully explain the complete adoption of fortune cookies into the Chinese American mainstream. In fact, the transfer of fortune cookies from Japanese bakeries to Chinese restaurants was a product of Japanese ostracisation following World War II. Reacting against the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt relocated almost 120,000 Japanese civilians in internment camps. This executive order displaced the Japanese from their livelihoods, homes, and businesses. With the closing of Japanese bakeries, Chinese entrepreneurs saw an opening. These cookies became increasingly popular with a growing demand. After the war, nearly 250 million cookies were produced every year by Chinese bakeries and factories. 

Like most things in America, its histories are defined by stories of immigration. The transfer of one culture to another is a uniquely American experience. Fortune cookies aren’t Chinese, let alone solely a Chinese American invention. All of this is packed neatly into a perfectly manufactured yellow-tinted cookie.

Cover image courtesy of The Curious Origin of Fortune Cookies

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Asian Groceries Move Online

If you’re at all familiar with Asian groceries, you’d know the aching feeling of trying to find your Asian sauces, dried anchovies, or chillis at the ethnic grocery aisle in the neighborhood’s biggest supermarket. Alas, it’s not there—just some Maruchan ramen packets, Sriracha bottles, and Goya beans. 

Asian grocery stores are a safe haven. In Boston, H-Mart and Super88 carry the biggest selection of basic Asian ingredients, delicacies, and desserts. You can find thirty different soy sauce bottles, ranging from dark, light, and regular. Instead of Sriracha, there’s Sichuan peppercorn, gochugaru, and sambal. The frozen aisle is jam-packed with char siew buns, gyozas, scallion pancakes, and tang yuan. It’s a refuge of home without the label ethnic. 

But the pandemic has changed the way we shop. Empty streets, mask mandates, and remote work have all rendered us homebodies. Even as we transition back to in-store shopping, online deliveries make life so much easier, and this mode of shopping exploded during the pandemic. Large grocery retailers began online deliveries without expanding their ethnic food aisle. In the last year, Asian American foodies have taken on the online grocery market by storm. 

Andrea Xu was born in Spain to Chinese parents. She moved to New York ten years ago. Xu grew up with food from all over the world—meals mixing unconventional ingredients. New York ten years ago, and even now, lacked the depth Xu craved. Xu and her partner began creating their company, Umamicart, an online grocery platform that would deliver essential and premium Asian-owned products. 

Xu interviewed dozens of customers and suppliers to understand what the grocery industry is lacking. “The ethnic aisle at mainstream grocery stores were often filled with brands that were unfamiliar,” she says. “The Asian brands that me and many of my third-culture friends loved weren’t sold at mainstream stores but were instead substituted with American-made versions of our favorite products, many of which weren’t comparable in quality or price.”

Popular grocery stores are starting to include more cultural foods. Take for example Trader Joe’s. It’s the millennial and Gen-Z safe space for relatively affordable and accessible simple groceries. Frozen meals such as the tikka masala, fried rice, and pork soup dumplings are growing popular among young, white consumers. Not surprisingly, these meals aren’t the most authentic and upcharge on otherwise simple, staple meals for people who belong to that culture. The store has also been under fire in the past for racist labeling of international foods. 

“It’s nearly impossible for a brick-and-mortar store to incorporate all non-white cuisines into their shelves in a thoughtful or curated way,” Xu says. “With Umamicart, we want to use our digital platform to our advantage and go deeper into these cuisines by offering an expansive catalog. We’re proud to offer nearly a thousand traditional and creative Asian offerings.”

Are separate grocery platforms the answer to diversifying food rather than integrating mainstream grocery stores? It seems the latter is a far-off reality as supply chains slow down and demand remains low among the majority of white customers. Umamicart offers an accessible and curated alternative. 

“We’ve noticed that customers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with Asian cuisines are becoming increasingly more dissatisfied with the selection at mainstream grocery stores,” Xu adds. “From our market research and direct conversations with customers, more and more customers care about who and what is behind the brands they are purchasing. They want to be provided with thoughtful and personalized recommendations and not just an odd mix.”

Other online grocery platforms are popping up like Weee, Bokksu, and Omsom, offering the same level of personalization for buying every day and more fun groceries. Of course, the pandemic has accelerated the demand for online delivery businesses, but underlying the trend of online Asian grocery platforms is the growing diversification of the food industry in America. Cultural foods no longer should be boxed up in a tiny ethnic grocery aisle. It deserves more attention, love, and authenticity that can only be genuinely brought out by individual platforms. 

“At Umamicart, for example, we add dozens of new fresh and pantry products every week,” Xu says. Our selection is a mix of timeless staples in different cuisines, and new and personal takes on traditional flavors—from immigrant-led businesses, mom-and-pop suppliers, and new and inspiring brands from Asian American founders.”

Maybe one day mainstream grocery stores in America will put Chinese black vinegar next to the red wine vinegar, the tahini next to the gojuchang, the McCormick spices next to five-spice powder and furikake, or the tomato paste next to curry blocks and tamarind paste; but until then, Asian ingredients and other international foods deserve an extra spotlight.

Cover photo courtesy of Seasoned by Jin

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Veganism in the World of Dieting

In the last decade, veganism has become more mainstream than ever before. From the rise of climate conservation and animal rights, veganism became an easy, sure fire way for individual activism. But the early vegan activists who preached about “your body is a temple” mantra may have contributed to the endless cycle of cult dieting. 

Veganism is a lifestyle that rejects all types of animal products. No meat, obviously. Also, no dairy, eggs, gelatin, and whey. The term was born from a British woodworker, David Watson, in November 1944. He used the rise in tuberculosis in Britain—linked with dairy cows—to his advantage in his Vegan Society newsletter which had 25 subscribers. Watson died at 95 in 2005, in which veganism rose to a whopping 2 million in the US. 

It can be a beautiful lifestyle, one that lessens your carbon footprint by a quarter. If you followed a select type of popular vegans on social media from around 2015, however that lifestyle cuts too close to disordered eating, steeped in the language of bikini body dieting. 

Take for example, Freelee the Banana Girl—the mother of the vegan cult back in 2014. Her fame derived from the insane 51-bananas-a-day vegan diet. Yes, 51 bananas a day. That’s around 714 g of sugar. Not to say sugar is terrible, but 700 g isn’t great. She also started the popular vegan diet Raw Till 4, a diet that only consists of eating raw foods like vegetables and fruits until 4 p.m. 

Freelee’s brand was heavily based on fatphobic and diet rhetoric to further her vegan agenda for “healthy weight loss.” In a YouTube video from 2014, Freelee bashes Jenna Marbles, a popular comedy YouTuber, for her non-vegan diet which Freelee claims has made Jenna gain weight. “She’s putting the animal products back in her mouth at a rapid rate,” Freelee says. In another video from 2013, Freelee excitedly claims she is “cellulite free” at 33 years old—even though 80 to 90 percent of women have cellulite. This type of weight loss emphasis is harmful not only to a person’s emotional wellbeing, but their physical health too. 

Once religious followers of Freelee, popular vegan YouTubers Bonny Rebecca and Rawvana actually ditched their preacher vegan brand on social media after experiencing digestion problems possibly linked with their diets. 

Bonny Rebbeca was slammed with hate after releasing her “Why I’m no longer vegan…” video in 2019. She explained she and her partner experienced painful gut issues, skin breakouts, and chronic fatigue. The restrictive rules of vegan diets such as Raw Till 4, high-carb, and low-fat diets led to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. In many of her older videos, Bonny was afraid to use oil and salt in her meals. 

Rawvana was another YouTuber famous for her intense raw vegan diet. Imagine recipe videos of just … fruit. Just like Bonny, Rawvana experienced adverse gut issues like SIBO and other health problems like anemia. 

However, when done right, veganism still offers a wealth of benefits for personal and environmental health. Adopting a plant-based diet naturally increases intake of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C, and E. It can also lower blood sugar levels and protect against risks of heart disease and cancer. Moreover, plant-based diets are still a hot topic, with many brands such as HelloFresh, a meal-kit delivery company, promoting plant-based meals as part of their marketing strategy. 

There’s still a wealth of healthy vegan content on social media, with new vegan influencers on the rise and promoting a more well-balanced vegan lifestyle without all the dieting nonsense. For example, Nisha Vora, under the name Vegan Plant Life, offers delicious recipes that aren’t afraid of salt and oil like those of her vegan influencer predecessors. 

Restriction of any type, diets such as Keto and the Atkins diet, can destroy the body long-term. These diets may achieve short-term weight loss, but at what cost? Any diet can be unhealthy if it’s interfering with your life. 

Disclaimer: Always do your research when it comes to dieting and consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Cover photo courtesy of Today