Cultivating Friendships, Food and Joy Between Strangers

By Marie Anne Lise Tan

What my first two months at university have taught me about gastronomy

The kitchen has always been my steady pillar of comfort and stability in my life and has played a significant role in making me who I am today. From getting my first cut from a sharp knife when I was a child, to cooking family meals for Mother’s Day and launching my first ever bake sale to the public… I have assimilated and appreciated this aspect of my identity.

Since coming to university and even before that I have realized where and how the kitchen fits into my life as a place of comfort, friendship and routine that creates a safe space. I absolutely treasure the experience of planning, making and sharing food made in a kitchen and I hope everyone can find that joy too! I have three thinking points to share that will hopefully point you in the right direction of embracing the joy of community that cooking and food can bring!

  1. Food as a Bonding Thread Between People

This is my very first meal that I cooked in my university accommodation kitchen. It was a simple fusilli pasta dish with sausages, tomatoes and button mushrooms. The pasta sauce was bought from one of the local supermarkets in London and everything else was fresh and homemade!

I was lucky enough to find a group of friends in my accommodation who were willing to cook with me and we quickly found how much we shared in common over this simple pasta meal. This got me reflecting on how food can be a common bonding thread between mere strangers. Food is more than sustenance, it’s a way of life and as I’ll explain later on, also a source of self-confidence and identity. A casual invite into one of our friend’s shared kitchens sparked a whole world of conversation and the experience of shared cooking and eating paved the way for a strong friendship ahead.  

2. Cooking Doesn’t Have to be Hard

Starting small is the way to go. Even if you are a seasoned chef or a complete amateur… Google recipes! Ask people you know and do not be afraid of taking constructive feedback and advice from others! Cooking with others in university has reminded me of the simple fundamentals that make up a good meal:

  • minimal ingredients (because we are all on a budget),
  • minimal equipment (again, because we can’t afford a thousand-pound Thermomix or simply have no space in a shared kitchen), and
  • a playlist of fun beats can transform a college meal into a true gastronomic experience, albeit an unconventional one.

Lime and sweet chili salmon

One of my favourite meals my friends and I have shared in university so far is actually this humble rendition of a classic Chinese family dinner. A sampling of warm savoury dishes, featuring a balanced diet of protein, fibre and healthy fats, accompanied by mounds of white jasmine rice. We bought salmon fillets on sale at the supermarket along with a packet of bok choy, and I had chanced upon a package of preserved mustard stems (or in colloquial dialect, simply called ham choy) at the Asian supermarket in London… Putting our heads together, we crafted this simple but comforting meal that reminded us of our roots and the traditional Chinese family dinner table. My friend’s rice cooker came with a double function of steaming, and so we managed to steam eggs alongside our rice. My other friend proposed that we use up his sweet Thai chili sauce, bought from Marks & Spencer’s and we decided on a lime and sweet chili salmon! All this planning and cooking was done amidst a backdrop of fun pop songs and a beautiful setting sun.

Pei tan jook

Another meal that was inspired by our mothers’ kitchens was this minced pork porridge topped with century egg (or pei tan). The pungent smell and bizarre appearance of century eggs have always given me the impression that only a handful of people can enjoy this delicacy… but my friends shared their excitement when I suggested this dish, possibly reminding them of the piping hot bowls of rice porridge served in Singapore hawker centres and the nostalgic taste of home.

Pei tan jook

3. The Joy of Teaching Others How to Cook!

I have been fortunate to learn much of my cooking skills from my skilful and patient mother, and hence much of my ease and comfort in the kitchen can be attributed to her careful guidance and nurturing from a young age. However, not all people start off the same way, and as I alluded to earlier, all experiences are different but equally valid!

So far, I have learnt that cooking is an enabling skill that liberates people and gives them the self-confidence to be independent and provide for themselves!

I have both directly and indirectly taught my friends how to cook using my actions and words, and I have seen how empowering this can be for them when they start helping to cook meals and proposing suggestions to improve a meal!

Editor’s Note: A big thank you to Anne Lise for this article. I received a WhatAspp message from Anne Lise one day asking me why she was receiving articles from Homskil’s blog. It was because I had heard from friends that she is talented teenager with a flair for cooking and baking. Her article proves the point!

Posted by Chayo, HomSkil Editor 1, 10 December 2021

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