HomeCooked: Salapao

Credits: Ella-Mae Earnshaw

Strand Magazine's new column HomeCooked dives into lockdown stories from the kitchen. Natty Sae Jew writes about the nostalgia and comfort she found in cooking Salapao.

“How was lockdown?”

If you’d ask somebody this question a year ago, you’d probably get some very puzzled looks. Now, it’s practically a new way of saying “how are you?”. In the same vein, it’s a pretty loaded question: for some of us, it was a period of a much needed pause, but for many it was nothing short of nightmarish stress.

But whoever or wherever you are, the unavoidable hot button issue was food. From apocalyptic stockpiling to compulsive baking, we seem to have become preoccupied with what we consume more ever before – and who can blame us when we have no choice but to plan and cook three meals a day?

Growing up in a household with two chefs, food was never not a hot topic. Food was always more than just sustenance, and eating isn’t just an act – it’s an experience. I’m the kind of person who keeps a spreadsheet of places I’d like to eat (I know, I know). I’ll proudly say that being at the dining table with families and friends is one of my life’s simplest pleasures; even coffees between seminars managed to keep me going during term time.

I did not realize what a luxury this was till it all stopped. During the initial stages of lockdown, members of different households were completely barred from gathering. My best friend (who rushed back from Spain) lives only a fifteen minutes walk away, but we couldn’t meet. I’m pretty sure some of my friends from uni forgot that I exist. I definitely didn’t anticipate that my last pre-lockdown dinner would be at Sexy Fish, to celebrate my birthday no less.

Admittedly, during the first month we were in full autopilot mode, making do with whatever was left on the desolate supermarket shelves (more on that in the next part). But as the situation stabilised, we had the room to be more creative. My mum had already been experimenting with some of the old recipes that had been sitting in her notebooks for 30 years: dumplings, curries, kimchi. And just like that, the taste for nostalgia became the crux of our experience with food during the pandemic.

Soon, my mum was teaching me how to fold up a ‘salapao’ (Thai-styled baozi, a cheap snack you can find on every street in Thailand). Then we threw together some potato salad (like the ones we had in Vienna a few months before) from scratch. I even had a go at the simple butter cookies, like the ones that come in a round metal-tin that you won in a New Year’s raffle (a quintessential part of a Thai childhood). Simple as they are, they’re all testament to what I have always known: that the real power of good food has always been the sense of togetherness and comfort it can bring.

If my social media feeds were anything to go by, we certainly weren’t the only ones. Whether it’s banana bread, sourdough, or even the ‘school dinner cakes’, everybody was having a go at cooking up some carb-fuelled comfort in the name of self-care. For a brief spell, family recipes and childhood classics replaced microwave meals. Again, this want of nostalgia isn’t new: pop culture’s love for reboots and remakes is quite insatiable, and as consumers we happily eat it up. The food scene on the other hand, has always been far more driven by trends and innovations, so seeing a reversal of that pattern has been ironically refreshing.

More important is the fact that without the chaos of modern living, we’re finally able to appreciate the things and people around us more. Hell, maybe it was never even about the food itself but the company. Think about it: when was the last time you sat down for a home-cooked meal with your loved ones? Even as a child of two chefs like me, it’s not nearly as common as you’d think it is. Again, this is something that seems to resonate with many – for young people, the response to family meals during lockdown is largely positive, and many want to keep it going.

In many ways, the pandemic has been a huge challenge and will continue to be for some time, but I’m thankful that it has given us the chance to reclaim our time with each other.

Illustrations by Parisa Omar