At the core of Singaporean identity is a deep passion for our food, matched only by an equal love for family. In this 2-part series, we examine how food has shaped our family interactions.
When I was younger, family dinners took place at 7 PM everyday.
They were compulsory affairs, absolutely non-negotiable. My parents could close an eye to homework submitted late, bouts of disobedience, broken curfews, and overspending, but not to missed dinners.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why eating together mattered so much.
Often, my sister and I would have to excuse ourselves from outings with friends just to return home earlier for dinner. Always, we did this resentfully.
“It’s family time,” my dad would say whenever we protested. “Bonding.”
Yet our dinners were often spent in silence. Once the standard “How was your day?” questions had been asked and answered, conversation trudged to a halt. iPhone addiction wasn’t a thing yet, so we distracted ourselves with TV. We’d finish in twenty minutes and depart to our rooms for the rest of the night.
For a 15 year-old concerned only with the state of her social life, I found this ritual stifling. But at least the food was good.
There is always, always, rice and double boiled soup. Fish it seems, has become compulsory too.
“Brain food,” my dad would say as he heaped chunks of white flesh onto my plate. “Eat your vegetables, good for iron,” my mum would remind us, after noticing the pile of green stuff lying untouched in a corner. Rounding it all off was the meat, usually pork or chicken.
My favourite? Honey roasted soy-sauce chicken wings.
Yet as the saying goes, you don’t know a good thing till it’s gone.
Slowly, work, school, friends and boyfriends started taking precedence.
While my parents understood that this was a natural part of growing up, that didn’t mean they were any less upset, or angry. I still remember the intense fights we used to have over missed dinners.
To them, I was the unfilial child. To me, they were the unreasonable parents.
Eventually, they caved and family dinners transitioned from being compulsory to recommended, and then finally, to optional. There was no going back after that.
Seldom did we ever get to eat as a family of 4 anymore.
But that was before 2015, when my sister left for Amsterdam to pursue her degree in Physiotherapy. Now, it’s short of impossible. For the next three years at least, it was down to the 3 of us.
And with the table only set for 3, the nature of our family dinners changed once again.
Almost as if to make up for her absence, my dad started to dabao (take away) back an extra dish to add to our meals. Usually Rojak, Roast Duck or Char Siew, and always from a store with a lengthy queue and wide reputation.
When we had all taken our place around the dinner table, he would produce a white Styrofoam box from a red plastic bag, and with all the gusto of a magician performing his final trick, unveil it before our hungry eyes to the sound of our cheers.
With so much food, you could almost forget that it was only meant for 3.
“No, eating in school,” I replied.
“Oh, then only me and your mum eating tomorrow,” he replied.
I heard the disappointment in his voice, and there was only guilt that followed. My helper later told me that there was a lot of extra food that week.
But these days, I’m trying to do better.
I still don’t eat dinner at home everyday, but 3 times a week is better than none. And I still get to enjoy the occasional Roast Duck too.
I do worry—and I’m sure my parents do as well—that when my sister and I finally move out, our family dinners will be further reduced to a monthly affair.
And if I’m being honest, I do carry a sense of regret.
Now that I’m older, I see a lifetime of dinners out ahead of me, but only a limited number of family dinners left to enjoy.
Some days, I berate myself for having taken it for granted all these years, thinking that I can always eat with my family “next time”. But what if this turns into the next, and the next, and the next?
One day, there will be no more next times. And so home for dinner I go. I wonder if there will be Roast Duck.