There's a reason everyone makes memes about Asian parents saying sorry with a bowl of cut fruit.
Food is a love language and it's not one I've been able to speak very well. My family meals were often tense affairs. We were lucky if my parents didn't start fighting by the time the third dish was served. My father often had no qualms yelling in public at a coffee shop, emboldened by a potent mix of rage and alcohol. As a child, I always took refuge in the safety of a book, feeling like if I focused hard enough on reading, I wouldn't be associated with this dysfunctional family. Over time, in our efforts to prevent this ugliness, everyone simply ate in silence.
Few things annoyed my father more than seeing someone refuse to try an unfamiliar dish — to keep the peace, my sister and I often accepted everything he heaped on our plates, chewing forever on something with a flavour and texture that disagreed with us. With great effort, I'd swallow it, along with my desire to point out that for someone who's all about trying new things, he's always taking us to the same old places to eat. Our pre-dinner ritual comprised of my father asking what we wanted to eat and then ignoring our suggestions, in favour of what he wanted. I don't think he realised he raised a family of yes men.
His eventual relocation to work overseas was the beginning of our freedom to eat what we liked and avoid what we didn't. As a student, there was nothing I loved more than visiting my classmates' homes, just so I could join their families for dinner and experience a family meal that was free of pressure, one that I could properly savour without the fear of upsetting someone at the table.
But over time, one by one, the places my father loved and would always bring us to, started to shut down. Retiring stall owners. Soaring rent. Inch by inch, the outlines of my father's culinary map shrank with each trip he made back to Singapore to visit us.
One afternoon, he asked me what I'd like to have for lunch. Here we go, I thought. I named a casual family-run Japanese restaurant I loved, an 8-minute drive from our home — and waited for the inevitable rejection.
He sighs, grabs the car keys, and says "Okay."
I don't know what's happening but we're at a restaurant. That I chose. The absurdity of this being such a huge deal was not lost on me. When he took his first bite of the tonkatsu he ordered, I was so nervous you'd think I cooked it.
I ask him if it's okay. He grunts.
The next day, he drives the entire family there for dinner. He orders the same tonkatsu. This happens over his next few trips back to Singapore. We go there so often, the restaurant owners now ply us with free flow iced green tea on the house. For some reason, my Dad doesn't think to ask for beer.
A waitress once leaned toward me with a warm smile, and says "Your father's such a nice man". I nearly threw up, but I realise she's not entirely wrong.
I don't know if it's the mellowing of time and age. The setting of the place or the food. But within the four walls of this unassuming eatery, I enjoy a sober, somewhat agreeable version of my father for an hour and a half. I get a family meal.
We want to hear from you!
Now's your turn. We're looking to collect your memories and quirks in relation to food and eating, as material for a possible project in 2023.
We'd be so honoured if you could take a bit of time to reflect and reminisce with us — and at the very least, recommend us some good food 🐛
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About the illustration
"The act of eating has always been a social one to me. Food has always transported me back to certain memories in my childhood and would take me back to places that I am missing. The illustration represents the fact that food always tastes better if you have it with your friends and loved ones." - HAFI
About the artist
HAFI is an illustrator, designer and visual artist.
She makes visual interpretations through drawings that are rooted in ancestral memories. Her works dissect themes of identity and cultural narratives via image making.