Discover more from Singapore Noodles
A chat with Devonne Niam
On living lightly and being self-sufficient
As some of you may be aware, Singapore Noodles kicked off its membership late last year, and since then, I’ve been lucky to have had conversations and real-life interactions with some of our members. So many of them have such interesting lives and great perspectives on Singaporean food culture that I’m going to be sharing member spotlights via this newsletter throughout 2022. I hope that you’ll enjoy reading about why they have chosen to cook local, and what it means to them.
In this newsletter, I speak with Devonne Niam (@devniam) who is based in Taoyuan, Taiwan.
Hi Devonne, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I like to say that I grew up all over Asia, spending about two-thirds of my life away from Singapore in China, Hong Kong, and, more recently, Taiwan. My husband and I moved with our 3-year old doxie to start new adventures in Taiwan - working at an AIoT pet-tech company, and living "in the mountains”. (Clarification: we're not as deep in the mountain as I hope to be, but rather at the edge of a small town close to the highway.)
We have the freshest air, the best sunset, and the view from my bathroom is just spectacular. The extra space also means we get to have a couple of balcony gardens, two raised beds out front, a makeshift green room, and the ability to plant trees! I'm still waiting for my plum tree and Sichuan pepper tree to fully bloom.
What role has food played in your family growing up?
Growing up in China in the late 90's/ early 00's was super interesting. Lots of foreigners were clustered together in small areas creating their own little "international town" before all the big brands came and flooded the area. Both the local and foreign food available were super authentic, and we took full advantage of that - feasting every chance we got.
My parents are incredible foodies; we're the kind of family that wakes up early on a Sunday morning to get to a hawker before they open to avoid the lines! They have always been adventurous with food and encouraged us to be experimental from a young age. My dad always said, "don't try, don't know". So that's kind of how we ate… from random suspicious barbecued meat to fried grasshopper, beef noodles soup at the sketchy corner store to 10-course Teppanyaki meals, and all your typical fancy hoo-has.
Up to this day, my dad and I still have an ongoing "battle" of who has the best restaurant recommendations. Whenever we're in the same city, we would take each other to this new amazing place we found, and try to convince each other how this restaurant is so much better than the last one we ate together.
How did you remain connected to Singapore and its food while living abroad?
When we first moved to China, there was no Singaporean food and no import market. The best we had was Prima Taste Laksa once a month, and it was momentous. All of my dad's golf khakis would gather as we served it up with quail eggs and yellow-mee that someone had to bring back from Singapore in their carry-on luggage ('cause it's too precious to check-in!).
I remember my mum's entire journey of learning Singaporean food that spanned a decade of trial-and-error, dinner parties with other Singaporean or Malaysian aunties, and many cooking classes. Over the years, her attempts evolved from cannot-make-it bah kut teh to the best curry puff in town, so much so that my mother became the Curry Puff Queen. She would make four or five dozen at a time, so that my sister and I would bring them to school and share them with friends.
Even though I left Singapore when I was 4, my tastebuds remained true-blue Singaporean. My comfort food may be carbonara and my go-to dish at home is kimchi-chigae, but nothing moves me as much as a good bowl of laksa and some really good char kway teow.
I think part of it was that whenever we were home, my parents and I ate nothing but Singaporean food. And the other part was, because we were only back for short periods of time, we would just travel to the edges of Singapore to the best hawkers. So, the Singaporean food in my mind is top-notch old-school hawker food, everything is 10/10!
Did your mom's Singaporean culinary journey rub off you?
I've always enjoyed making food, seeing it as one manifestation of love that can be consumed. That said, I had always leaned towards more typical western dishes and some Taiwanese dishes we couldn't get in Singapore!
Seeing my mother cook Singaporean food made me steer clear of the cuisine. It was so much more difficult, and I can never quite make it taste like my mum's. We also frequently traveled back to Singapore, so there never really was a need to learn. I just had to binge loads when I was back home.
Before moving to Taiwan last year, I was in Singapore for almost 5 years - the longest I had ever been in Singapore for. Having easy access to mee rebus, char kway teow, and braised duck was life-changing. So, when we were in quarantine for 14 days last winter, all I wanted was a hot bowl of Hokkien prawn mee and a spoonful of sambal. I looked up a recipe when I got out of quarantine and realized it wasn't as difficult as I made it up to be, so decided that it was due time I learned how to cook food from home.
How was the process of learning from your mom like? Were you ever chased out of the kitchen?
I learnt some of the everyday basics like curry chicken, chai tau kueh, and pork trotter fried beehoon. Most of the time, though, it was definitely more looking than learning. I think she learned many of the food by sight and by trial and error, so there weren't a lot of recipes or methodology to follow. She would do something, and I would watch and try to replicate it by heart.
I was never chased out of the kitchen, per se, but my mum always reminded me that, as a woman, pursuing an education and career was far more important than learning how to cook. When I spent too much time in the kitchen, she would sometimes nag to say that if I spent more time outside the kitchen, I'll accomplish a lot more. Though now that I'm older and am more stable career-wise, she's more open with her praises of my cooking abilities.
Now, being someone who enjoys and is proficient at cooking, what is the value of cooking to you?
I see food as home. Because it has the ability to activate all of your senses and trigger that feeling of safety and comfort, being able to cook allows you to recreate home wherever you may go.
I interpreted my mum’s words as - if I am going to cook, I should do it for myself. Whenever I am feeling down or need to celebrate, I am able to go to my kitchen and create a space to safely express myself, escape reality, or commemorate the moment.
It's important to at least be able to make a dish or two. You don't want to be stuck in a pandemic without food delivery services, haha. It's a practical skill to have! Also, cooking is so much more about the process than the outcome – the joy of choosing ingredients, prepping, and watching heat manipulate food. It's a lot more than serving a dish on a plate. 😉
How has your journey of cooking Singaporean been so far?
It's been really fun! Bringing bits and bobs of home together in the mountains of Taiwan has been so great. Recently, we hosted a bah kut teh party for 8 with our friends and taught them how to dunk youtiao in the soup. I even brought kek kukus on a camping trip with my co-workers – everyone was amazed that the cake is Southeast Asian and steamed. I think food really brings people together and is such a great way to start conversations, and I'm glad to be able to rep something from home.
Omg you brought kek kukus camping!! Speaking of the cake, I know that you dried the fruits in it yourself. How has living rurally connected you more deeply to food and to culinary traditions?
I did 🥰 It was truly an experience eating it beside a camp fire!
The main reason why we wanted to live more rurally is so that we can be more self-sufficient. My dream is to be able to retire or live in a self-sufficient place that is truly off the grid. Not your typical internet grid, but the "unseen" grid - power, sewage, water etc. A lot of what we're trying to do now is to be as light on the environment as possible. We compost, grow most of our spices, and dehydrate lots of seasonal items so they keep well. I try as much to supplement our diet with homegrown items and, if not, to shop as locally as possible.
Most of our greens come from a farmer's "shop" down the road from us (imagine a big picnic umbrella and two tables just off the side of a road). We get whatever the aunty had just harvested and usually just cook that. One of my favorite conversations with her was: "I'd like some corn – will you be harvesting any?" "Yes, in 45 days. You come back later."
I think that when you're able to move away from your imported supermarket groceries, you'll be able to appreciate the seasonality of food and how there are so many more options to everything. And most of them are probably better for the earth too! And it's really all a loop, right? Live in mountain 'cause the air is fresh and it looks good. So eat, cook, live well to protect the earth, so your mountain can keep looking good.
Such a beautiful way of life. How do you think a person living in Singapore can embrace this ethos?
I don't think it's difficult to live similarly in Singapore! You can always shop at your local wet market instead of the supermarket, there's a lot more variety and options too. Ask your veggie uncle what the odd-looking vegetable is and how to use it, they'll probably share a quick way to cook it also!
When I was in Singapore, I was absolutely in-love with Treatsure App, you can shop for "ugly" or overproduced groceries for very affordable prices. There are also lots of urban farmers, microgreens places, and being in an HDB allows you to have a much closer relationship with your neighbors too. If someone is growing some greens, just be nice and ask if you can get a cutting or some help with growing them yourself too. Shoutout to Urban Farmers (Singapore) Facebook group, it's the best urban farming support group out there!
I believe it's more about appreciating what is available and exploring an alternative to the ingredients you're used to, rather than always having avocado on eggs.