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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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The Art of the Tailgate

Last night, at the last real Boston College home football game (because that Thanksgiving game doesn’t count), with a hot dog in one hand and buffalo dip in the other, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad at the fact that I would have to wait another year to do it all over again. Tailgating is nothing short of an art form. There’s the tents, the decor, the ambiance, the music, but most importantly, there’s the food. 

Something about the crisp fall air, the maroon and gold all around, the fireworks coming out of Alumni during kickoff, it’s a feeling you can’t replicate with anything else. And while football is all well and good, for me, the real event is off the field and in the parking lots. The food is what makes my game days. If you are unfamiliar with the joys of tailgating and the art of trying as many foods as possible before kickoff, consider this a guide to your perfect college tailgating experience. 

To start, the tailgate is going to differ depending on the time of day the game is. Morning and night games each come with their own different menus. During the day, when the game starts at noon and you’ve hit the lots by 9am, it can be hard to swallow a hot dog or a burger upon just waking up. But as you walk around, you’ll see parents with tables lined with mimosas, breakfast sandwiches, fruit bowls and baked goods of all kinds. Breakfast items as far as the eye can see. My personal favorites are an egg and cheese on a biscuit or a cheese danish. There’s more than enough to fill up your empty stomach before you stand out in the beating sun for the rest of the afternoon. 

Night games are a different beast entirely. With more dinner items than breakfast, you’ll find seltzers and beers in maroon coolers next to cars. Tables will be decorated with red bandana tablecloths and adorned with hot dog bars (featuring toppings like chili or mac and cheese), buffalo and french onion dip, loaded nachos and cookies and cupcakes piled high on top of one another. There are grills sending smoke wafting into the air, BC flags flying high in the sky, and everyone is ready to eat up and get to the game. 

The buffet style of a tailgate means that you can’t help but try every little thing on the tables. Filling plates and napkins with pregame snacks and treats is one of the greatest weekend traditions. In fact, last night I asked a few of my fellow tailgaters what was their favorite thing to fill up a plate with at a tailgate. One said calzones, an interesting but entirely valid choice. Another said a classic hot dog, an essential you can never go wrong with. One said pigs in a blanket, and another said a big slice of cornbread. It’s clear to see the variety that a tailgate spread can encompass, and how no matter what choice you make, there is no wrong answer. 

There’s a certain energy at a tailgate, one of excitement, positivity, and community. It’s the ability to move along from tent to tent, regardless of if you know someone or not, and have someone extend to you a red solo cup or a chocolate chip cookie. Parents all around, asking you if you’ve had enough to eat, ready to fill your plate with a burger or veggies and hummus. It’s one giant family dinner (or breakfast) and it represents one of the greatest parts of food, the ability it has to bring us together. So no matter what team you’re rooting for, you’ll always have a full plate. 

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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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Candy Corn Crazy

When I was little, my mom would pour candy corn into various displays around the house every October. Into candle holders, sprinkled into centerpieces, candy corn would find its way scattered across the house for my mother’s Halloween decor. But when my mom would leave the house, whether it was to walk the dog or take the trash out, I would strike. Sticking my little hands into bowls they weren’t supposed to be stuck into, I’d come out with handfuls of candy corn, acting fast enough to grab and run back to my room to eat my snack in safety all before my mom walked back in the front door. Eventually, my mother noticed that her decorations seemed to be thinning out, and she confronted me about my candy corn habits. 

I couldn’t help it, I love candy corn. I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s my favorite Halloween treat. Incredibly polarizing, I’ve found it’s one of the candies that people are pretty passionate about. Whether or not you like the candy will tell you a lot about a person. But regardless of your feelings surrounding candy corn consumption, candy corn is still one of the most popular holiday candies. In fact, it’s the second most popular Halloween candy according to the National Confectioners Association. The only thing it falls behind is chocolate. Something automatically associated with Halloween, it has its own designated day (Oct. 30th, for anyone looking to celebrate), and it comes in a variety of colors and flavors expanding the market beyond the usual spooky season. 

Candy corn’s history wasn’t always linked to the month of October. In fact, when it was first created, it wasn’t called candy corn at all. It was created around the 1880s, when the market for farm-themed candies was at its highest (if you can believe there ever was a time). While never officially confirmed, the inventor of candy corn was George Renninger, who was an employee at the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia. While they were the first company to start selling the treat, Goelitx, now known as the Jelly Belly Candy Company, popularized it. Marketed as “Chicken Feed,” it was a candy sold at all times of the year, not just Halloween. As a penny candy, it could be bought for cheap, making it easily accessible to the general public. But during the 1950s, as trick or treating began to become commonplace, Halloween started to become more and more connected to candy, and Chicken Feed began to be advertised specifically during this time of the year. As the years went on, Halloween became the perfect holiday to market a product associated with sweets, good times, and children. In the 1970s, candy officially became a Halloween specialty. Over time, this mixture of sugar, fondant, corn syrup, vanilla flavor, and marshmallow creme became synonymous with an increasingly commercialized Halloween tradition. 

For every lover of candy corn, there is an equally passionate hater. Known affectionately as Satan’s earwax or the “shed baby teeth of tiny toddler demons” as one Twitter user put it, it inspires the most creative insults. Yet even among fans, there’s debate. Do you eat the whole kernel? Do you start with the yellow or the white end? Do you like the pumpkins? Every October, these questions work their way back into my mind, and I spend the rest of the month pondering and enjoying my slim amount of socially acceptable time to be eating raw sugar. 

So as the years go on, I’ll keep sticking my hands into the halloween centerpieces made by mothers everywhere, just to grab a little kernel of chicken feed, and I encourage you to do the same.

Cover photo courtesy of Food and Wine

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The Bear’s Groundbreaking Invention of the TV Culinary Drama

On September 21, 1957, CBS broadcasted the first episode of Perry Mason,  creating the blueprint for legal drama television series as we know them today. Popular and critically acclaimed programs such as Suits, Better Call Saul, and Law & Order would have been impossible without Perry Mason’s groundbreaking precedent. On June 23, 2022, The Bear premiered on FX and inaugurated its own genre: the culinary television drama. Although programs inspired by The Bear have yet to appear (after all, it hasn’t even been four months), there will undoubtedly be small screen projects aiming to recreate the show’s tragicomic intensity in the near future. 

I must acknowledge that, while The Bear is groundbreaking for the television medium, the concept of the culinary drama isn’t exactly new. Indeed, over the past decade, numerous culinary films were released with varied results—many of them ranked somewhere in between the schmaltzy-yet-harmless Hundred-Step Journey and the pathetically self-serious Burnt. Ultimately, The Bear succeeds because—much like Jon Favreau’s Chef—it postulates the chef-artist without engaging in the nauseating hero-worship of Hell’s Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay, and Iron Chef America. Furthermore, its creator,Christopher Storer, does a commendable job of celebrating the diverse, blue-collar workers of the restaurant industry, thus avoiding the affected cliches of The British Baking Show and its ilk. 

The series itself focuses on Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and his efforts to reinvigorate his family’s rundown restaurant—The Original Beef of Chicagoland—after the suicide of his charismatic, yet troubled, older brother Michael “Mikey” Berzatto (Jon Bernthal). Despite his illustrious credentials and fine-dining experience, Carmy struggles to earn the respect of his brother’s best friend, Richie Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and the rest of the stubborn, working-class kitchen staff. Carmy’s James Beard Award and his sous chef Sydney Adamu’s (Ayo Edebiri) Culinary Institute of America degree are not enough to endear them to Mikey’s faithful employees. Carmy realizes that in order to redeem The Original Beef, he cannot simply overhaul the whole system; instead, he must inspire his employees to reach their full potential. Ultimately, it is a story both hilarious and earnest which depicts the kitchen for what all former restaurant employees know it to be: a family. 

Like in all families, however, there is considerable dysfunction in the claustrophobic confines of The Original Beef. As a former line cook at Little Moss and Davoll’s Cafe, I could scarcely watch during the opening scene to the first episode when Carmy and his staff frantically prepare for dinner service. I was similarly distressed watching Carmy, in episode seven, realize that Sydney left on the pre-order option overnight, sentencing the kitchen to the Sisyphean task of fulfilling hundreds of orders. I must admit, however, that I also found solace in recognizing the peculiar camaraderie of restaurants which I have been lucky to experience for the past two summers. Whether it be Marcus (Lionel Boyce) helping Sydney clean up a catastrophic spill, Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) finally accepting Sydney, or the whole staff gathering to share “family meal,” it was touching to see my experiences of familial restaurant culture affirmed on television. 
 So far The Bear has received rave reviews, and I hope that it maintains its cultural cachet through the content-glut of the holiday season and into the New Year. By positioning The Bear as a television tragi-comedy a lá Succession and Fleabag, Christopher Storer opens a world of possibilities for the culinary drama. The on-screen representation of service workers’ dedication will hopefully inspire real-world action in raising the minimum wage, recognizing the profession’s dignity, and quashing poor customer behavior. Because, after all, is there a greater character-red-flag than someone who yells at the server?

Cover photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times

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Tackling Tailgating

The iPhone sent out a piercing blare at 6:30 am, ringing in unison with other students’ alarms across Boston College’s campus. It was the third football game day of the school year, and tailgating started in an hour and a half. Emily Finn, a senior at Boston College, rolled out of her bed and into her maroon and gold gear to watch her team play Louiseville. Saturday’s forecast: 90% chance of rain and 50 degree weather. Still, Finn was determined to play her part and set up a successful tailgate. Rain or shine. 

     She hailed an uber and booked it to Bruegger’s Bagels, where she had an array of 48 bagels and six different types of cream cheese waiting for her, already toasted and pre-sliced. She had ordered them two weeks in advance. Her other roommates were racing to a nearby Dunkin’ to collect several boxes of coffee, Finn’s next door neighbors were bringing mimosas and banana bread, her dad was bringing hot dogs and peppers to grill, and her friends’ parents were bringing everything in between: brownies, fruit salad, bloody mary’s, donuts, and burgers. Finn arrived at the tailgate as her roommate neared with her Honda CRV (the lucky car for the day), promptly unfolded the BC painted folding table, and laid out the bagels next to the parking spot. She helped herself to a hot cinnamon-raisin bagel with honey-walnut cream cheese as she waited for the others to arrive. She exhaled a long breath. The bagels had made it to the tailgate. 

     Tailgating is an activity many college students, alum, and general sports fans are familiar with. It’s a social gathering where friends and fans alike can share a casual meal with one another, typically served out of the back of cars in parking lots near the main sporting events—usually, a football game. This process lasts several hours, which is partially a product of the amount of effort put into preparing the food for the tailgate. Tailgating helps bring people together who are part of a community, and the food plays a large role in cultivating this inclusive environment. 

     For Finn, she was willing to put in extra effort because she has grown up going to Boston sporting games, where parents, friends of friends, and even strangers have been hospitable to her at the tailgates. “Everybody is so generous—people really are willing to provide for anybody cheering for their team,” said Finn. She said these experiences, in combination with her school’s pride, are why she wants to go the extra mile for her tailgates. “I love the Boston College spirit and everybody gathering at school together for the same purpose,” said Finn. Bringing food, even if it was only bagels from a nearby noshery, is important to her because it is her way of showing this spirit.

     “Just like on holidays, it feels good to take care to prepare something special for a special occasion,” Finn said. And the same goes for tailgating, “especially for families who spend so much money on having a tailgating spot and traveling regardless of how far the game is,” said Finn. She compared bringing her Bruegger’s Bagels to bringing a dessert to a holiday party. “It feels good to do this because game day is a special day,” said Finn. That Saturday, Finn got to watch Boston College’s football team beat Louisville, all on a full stomach of her favorite tailgating food—hotdogs. 

Cover photo courtesy of Carson Locker

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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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Crawfish on the Newspaper

I spread the black and white pages of The Ocala Star Banner and The Miami Herald across two picnic tables, always double or triple layering them on top of one another. Most prints were from the current week, but some had been collecting in a drawer in the kitchen since February; it was now May. I placed candles and baskets on the paper to hold the place of the feast that would soon be laid on top of it—though highly unlikely that a strong gust of wind would wipe the table clear of the papers during the toasty, central Florida summer. I queued country music on the speaker and set out solo cups for sweet tea along one of the benches. Now the tables were ready for the crawfish boil. 

     Crawfish boils, while predominantly known for being a Lousianna classic after the Acadians (now Cajuns) arrived from Canada in the 1700s and ate crawfish out of necessity, have their hold across most of the southern states. The tiny crawfish, which look nearly like a cross between a lobster and a shrimp, are often accompanied by baby potatoes, corn on the cob, and Andouille sausage; the Floridians can’t help but often add Gulf shrimp to the mix as well. These ingredients are tossed in seasoning, traditionally Cajun seasoning, and then left to boil. When done, what’s left is a mass amount of fresh seafood and hearty vegetables with a slight kick to it, and all for the sharing. The steaming food gets rushed onto the picnic tables and into the waiting arms of the daily newspapers, as grabbing hands try to claim the most fresh crawfish or shrimp. 

     Crawfish boils are more than just a meal, as people often wouldn’t make one just for themselves. The boils are a community event. Every other high school graduation party consisted of one, and even birthday parties or anniversaries centered around a giant boil. Last Christmas, instead of having a traditional Christmas meal, my grandmother—whose family is all from Louisiana—insisted on having a crawfish boil. So, after opening gifts around the Christmas tree, my cousins and I got to chopping away the bags of potatoes and shucking dozens of cobs of corn. 

     The process to create this meal is not tedious. The food is not gourmet. The seafood is not exotic. However, boils have maintained their popularity because of the experience that comes with them. It takes many hands to feed as many people as the meals are able to; it takes even more effort to shell the crawfish and shrimp with each bite that is taken. People are brought together throughout the entire process of the boils, from collecting the daily paper to prepping the food all the way to spreading the meal across linked picnic tables. 

     The spirit of the crawfish boil has infiltrated other parts of the states, with even boil restaurants experiencing success in Boston. My roommate, Fizah, and I recently ventured to the Bootleg Special, a modern and trendy restaurant where the entire menu is focused on creating a custom boil mix. Each table has a little metal bucket with stilts at the end of it, and while much more posh than the southern boils, the meals nonetheless still bring people together. While they might not be making headlines, crawfish will continue to sit on the front page of the paper.

Cover photo courtesy of BostonMagazine

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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