It has been a decade since my mother last cooked a proper meal for the family. I have lost count the number of times I have pleaded to eat her homecooked food, but she was often too exhausted after work or her knees would hurt too much to stand for long hours. She also has high standards of hygiene, which meant she would either go all out to ensure that the kitchen was sparkling clean (and no, we were not allowed to step into the kitchen to help), or she would not cook anything at all. For years, she chose the latter.
Growing up, I enjoyed savouring my mother’s cooking. My top 3 favourites were:
- Pork chop (But I realised now that they are actually pork cutlets)
- Stir fried potatoes with minced pork
- Curry chicken
My sister and I often looked forward to her food, sitting by the dining table while eagerly waiting for our meals. We did not realise then that as a mother of two young children and living with in-laws while going through a period of unemployment, she was facing severe amounts of stress. Often times, she could not voice out her feelings and would try to channel her energy towards cooking and singing. Other times, she would snap in anger and we would cower in fear, unsure of what was happening.
We did not realise that cooking was her way of de-stressing, and to keep up with the normalcy of our lives apart from the frequent family conflicts we experienced in our childhood. It was one of her curious ways of loving us, without revealing the struggles that she was facing.
As my schedule got busier over the years and my mother got back to working full-time after a few years as a housewife, the entire family began to eat lesser homecooked food until it stopped altogether. Later, my paternal aunt who stayed with us picked up cooking and would prepare nourishing Chinese soups and other healthy dishes once in a while, making sure that we would have some homecooked meals at home.
At one point before circuit breaker started, I was eating outside way more than having homecooked food. It became a norm, and so I stopped questioning and yearning for the past.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took a turn for the worse in Singapore, our nation went into an almost full lockdown mode, locally known as “circuit breaker”. With the exception of essential services workers, the rest of us have to stay at home as part of our efforts to flatten the curve. My mother is an essential services worker, so I braced myself for a slew of delivery orders I would have to make to satiate our hunger throughout the circuit breaker.
During the second weekend of the circuit breaker, my mother announced to the family, “Daddy and I are going to cook.” We brushed off that statement, and I resumed with my zoom calls while my sister tried to do her fitness workouts from home. No way it was going to happen, I thought to myself.
On 19 April 2020, Sunday, I came out to the living room and was shocked by the sight of the kitchen. My parents were engrossed in cooking, sometimes getting into minor squabbles deciding on the next cooking steps and ingredient substitutes as they did not realise our kitchen ingredients were running low.
At 7pm, food was ready. My sister and I headed to the dining table in apprehension. Lifting the lid, we saw a bowl of pork chop coated with biscuits, the familiar smell wafting through the air. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Slowly, I brought the pork chop to my own plate, and took my first bite of it along with rice.
I never told anyone, but I felt tears welling up in my eyes. In that moment, I remembered my seven year old self at our old HDB flat, enjoying the food while watching the TV that was placed near the dining table.
I took another bite, then another. I couldn’t believe it. The familiar taste, a craving that I had suppressed for the longest time. When my mum stopped cooking, I was convinced somewhere inside me that maybe she didn’t love us anymore. Along with her heading straight to the bedroom after work instead of talking to us, or otherwise buying things that I felt I didn’t need. I was confused by her gestures, which gave birth to the initial anger that I harboured towards her for years.
I concluded that food remains the most fluent love language that my mother could express, and the years of mixed emotions started to dissipate.
The next day, she cooked us lunch. This time, it was potato and minced pork. Again, one of my top 3 favourites. My sister and I were drawn to the smell of the potatoes, and sat by the dining table waiting eagerly for our meal. This time, my sister felt something too. We sat there in silence while savouring each piece of our food, and then snapping photos to record this memory.
During tea time, she surprised us with a Chinese dessert we have not tried from her before, sweet potato and ginger soup. Knowing that even my father began experimenting in the kitchen with my mother in spite of his poor cooking skills (of all the times he made food for us, they were either burnt, too diluted or too thick in texture), it warmed my heart and stomach.
The following weekend was the theme of curry. Saturday was curry chicken and Sunday was fish curry with other side dishes. Watching my parents keep up with their weekend cooking projects for the family, the vision that I had been dreaming for most of my life was transforming into reality. I tried comparing my present reality with the past of my childhood, as though placing two pictures side by side in my mind.
When I was 13 years old, I sketched an image of myself gripping a pair of scissors in my hand. My friend saw my notebook in class and asked if I was okay. I didn’t think there was any issue, but perhaps that was an image of my heart back then. There was no blood in the drawing, but I know that I felt many cuts and stabs from the background of countless family conflicts while growing up. Around the same age, I wrote in my notebook as well that I hated my family. The notion of family harmony was an impossible concept to me.
I started eating more in school during my secondary school and JC days, or would order takeaways from the food court near my house. At first, I didn’t mind these food, until the repetition and lack of heart work in the preparation made each meal a bland and dull affair. When I entered university, I discovered the enjoyment of cafe hopping and would spend more and more money on searching for the “best ambience” while eating the similar types of food I would see in most cafes.
As my parents brought out the curry chicken to the dining table, I looked around and saw the five of us digging into the meal, demanding for more bread at times to dip into the curry. While eating, I felt tears in my eyes again. Perhaps it was really spicy, but I know that it was truly because the impossible was becoming a daily reality for me. I didn’t know I missed the ambience of home, and that I have been paying so much money outside to search for something that no cafe could ever replicate.
Over the course of the circuit breaker, my parents started experimenting more food. Some of the new dishes in our household included:
I asked them how they learned to make these new dishes, and my mum told me excitedly, “I learned from Youtube!” I laughed and smiled in wonder, my parents looking more youthful and hopeful during these supposedly dark times. It reminded me that circumstances do not fully define the way we live our lives.
While I continue to enjoy my aunt’s amazing soups and steamed dishes on weekdays, I get another kind of variety from my parents during weekends, having the best of both worlds. Perhaps it was the circuit breaker that forced us to look at and speak to one another more, to learn to live in the house as a home, to realise that in the chaos of the world, the family remains an important unit of society, and the foundation for a person’s life.
With every bite of homecooked food that I take, I will savour these efforts, reminding myself that in spite of my mother’s struggles and imperfections, her love for the family remains.