by Anya Ow
1. A Siew Ngap Memory
This is my favourite siew ngap memory, on a hot and humid day in Singapore. My paternal grandmother explains in Mandarin why I shouldn’t take shortcuts by buying pre-shelled chestnuts (“Can buy in Australia or not?” she pauses to ask), as she stitches freshly shelled water chestnuts into the belly of a duck. The duck is to be fried in a wok in an outdoor kitchen (“Can you get the fire hot enough over an Australian stove?”) before it is braised for hours. It is the memory I cook into my siew ngap during the rare few times I tried to make it, forbidden shortcuts and a not-fiery-enough wok and all. Served with the meat falling tenderly off the bone, this version of siew ngap is a family recipe. It is not an authentic type of siew ngap: more braised and deep-fried than roasted, a once-in-a-blue-moon dish that my grandmother likely made up based on limited tools, in between working three jobs as a single mother to put her children through school. It is still one of my favourite things to eat.
In the first episode of his Netflix series Ugly Delicious, celebrity chef David Chang of Momofuku says, “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state [. . .] It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” Chang’s point is that rigidity in cuisine leads to stagnation—in an interview with NPR, he notes: “That’s not to say that authenticity can’t be delicious. But when it’s the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me.”
Climate change will conspire to make David Chang’s hated concept of authenticity impossible, whether in the form of privation as parts of our supply chain collapse, or—hopefully—as we radically change how we live to save ourselves. My grandmother’s recipe would be no different. We are overfishing our oceans, and our current agricultural systems are unsustainable. We are running out of water. Stories about lab-grown meat and 3D-printed chocolate are stories about technology. I’m more curious about how food itself will change with each new normal that approaches.
“The Same Old Story” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is about authenticity and food, in a future version of our world made less and less liveable by a changing climate. I am not a chef. To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background. Is the former expected to be cheap compared to the latter? Is creative freedom only rewarded—worse, allowed—from one set of people but not the other? Can a product only be considered perfectly cooked in one particular way but not another?
If you ask a foodie about creative restaurants in Melbourne, they’d likely bring up Attica, featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table. I think of Nora. Owned by its chef, Sarin Rojanametin, and his partner Jean Thamthanakorn, Nora was a tiny modern Thai fusion twenty-seat restaurant. Sarin was not formally trained. The restaurant sat just off Lygon Street, Melbourne’s Little Italy. One of the dishes on the menu was called “Too Many Italians and Only One Asian,” made of green papaya julienned to resemble pasta, with a fermented garlic and sator pesto sauce. I found the food creative, confronting, and adventurous, informed by flavours from Rojanametin’s childhood. “We’ll never compromise,” Rojanametin once told Broadsheet, “It doesn’t matter how many people walk out. It’s not that we don’t care. We’re not here to change anything, but we’re here to make a statement. We’re here to please ourselves.” In its restaurant form, Nora closed after two years. I’m not sure what Rojanametin and Thamthanakorn are up to now. It’s a familiar story.
My search for authenticity in the food I choose to eat is about preserving and encouraging equal access. It is more necessary for some people than others. The disempowered minority has less access to acclaim, less access to resources. I love to eat, and all good food is interesting to me. Yet food is in itself a form of memory, a culmination of experience, technique, and both personal and cultural history. For many of us, it is a living link to our family, personal history, and culture that we renew whenever we eat. It can be a meaningful way by which we taste someone else’s background and experiences. I want to devour stories—in food or in words—that are also statements. Memories made by their creators despite all odds.
To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background.
2. A Cyberpunk Memory
The concept of sustainable, climate-driven change was explored in an experimental, immersive cyberpunk dining event in Melbourne called Sensory Underground. It took place in 2019 beneath Fed Square, accessed through a side door in an innocuous part of Platform 13 in Flinders Street Railway Station. Light installations flickered across the concrete walls in neon static as we took our seats. Set in 2045, the event created an entree out of seafood parts that would usually be discarded, and the main course had meat as a side and a roast cauliflower as the main—noting that we would likely be eating more and more vegetables compared to meat. Dessert was 3D-printed chocolate. Drinks had to be ordered through an app.
What broke immersion for myself and my Filipina guest was the opening dish—togarashi fried crickets. Perhaps created to shock the Aussie audience, it made us laugh. We’d eaten crickets before, of course. It’s nothing special in Asia. Worse was the cyberpunk-themed clothes that some of the non-Asian serving staff wore. Neon-lit conical straw hats with robes, portion trays suspended from bamboo poles balanced over shoulders. Themed in a genre notorious for borrowing Asian aesthetics without engaging with its people or culture, that part of dinner felt more of the same. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of the future. Existing, sustainable forms of food would be “discovered”, gentrified, turned trendy. A neon-lit rejection of authenticity, tuned for entertainment.
I hope I’m wrong. Like modern science fiction, the food scene in Melbourne is becoming increasingly diverse. Great new places have opened up, from Jessi Singh’s Indian fusion pub Mr Brownie, to Chef Khanh Nguyen’s Supper EXP by SUNDA_. May that also be the case where you are: May the future of food be more and more diverse, with different people given the opportunity to create. As you read “The Same Old Story,” I hope it encourages you to try something different, something true to its nature. Give those stories or places a chance, old or new. They need your support. In return, you might end up having something great that you’ve never tried before, something that isn’t more of the same. Bon appetit.