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
Here's the recipe for Salapao for you to have a go at:
Salapao (Thai-style steamed buns)
Plain/Cake Flour 350g
Lukewarm water 240 ml
Dough Starter (from above)
Baking Power 1 1/2 tsp
Pinch of salt
Water 4 tsp
Vegetable Fat (Shortening)/Unsalted Butter 50g
Coriander root 1 tbsp
Minced garlic 1 tbsp
Ground black pepper 3 tsp
Full fat minced Pork (or chicken) 500g
Cornstarch 3 tbsp
Chopped onion 150g
Oyster sauce 1tbsp
Golden Mountain seasoning sauce 2 tbsp
Sugar 2 tsp
Sesame oil 1 tbsp
Sift the flour into a bowl and add the yeast.
Create a well in the middle and pour in the lukewarm water. Mix and knead the
Cover the bowl with cling film of muslin cloth. Leave to proof for 30-40 minutes until the starter double in size.
Sift the and yeast into a bowl
Add the starter into flour follow with sugar, salt, and water. Combine in the stand mixer using a dough hook on medium speed, or by hand.
Add the shortening/butter and knead by hand for 10 minutes.
Leave the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film, and leave until double in size (approx. 30-40 min).
Knead the dough again for 5 minutes, and separate them into small balls (approx. 30g each).
Cover with cling film and leave to proof again for about 10 minutes, and the dough is ready to be filed.
Prepare the bun dough as described above.
Grind the coriander root, garlic, and pepper together (using a pestle and mortar) and mix with the minced pork and cornflour.
Season with oyster sauce, seasoning sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. Mix well.
Flatten the small ball of dough into a circle of 3 in. diameter, place the filling in the middle fold into a bun.
Place finished buns on parchment paper and leave for 5 minutes before steaming.
Make sure the water is boiling for the steamer. Steam each batch for 8-10 minutes
Edited by Anoushka Chakrapani