Sep 12, 2010
Anchor of family dinners
On my mum's dinner table last Sunday was a pot of hot Chinese seaweed soup with a generous proportion of kid-pleasing meatballs, shallots and swirls of egg.
That comforting pot was a request from my nephew, when my parents picked him up after school earlier that week.
A couple of days later, he reminded her to steam white rice - not that any grandma needs a reminder - as he loves his rice immersed in soup.
That Sunday morning, his sister was already relishing the thought of the good, light soup when she woke up.
Like many children in food-fixated Singapore, the two kids have explored global tastes. It may be Himalayan salt on the dinner table, octopus balls from a Japanese street stall on a snowy day, a tiny, experimental sip from a parent's wine glass or a new restaurant.
It's a pleasant revelation that my niece and nephew also plump for dishes from grandma's kitchen.
Our family meal is really a slice of culinary continuity. The children taste dishes that my sisters and I liked while growing up, though some spices have been toned down for the kids, and mum is now more sparing with the salt and oil.
Hainanese pork chop in ketchup gravy, Nonya chap chye with satisfying pops of lily buds, divine spring rolls, spicy tempeh, curry crab, chicken rice paired with chilli freshly pounded in the mortar, bee hoon stir-fried, sometimes, with greasy, canned pork belly - all have appeared in front of the family through the years and continue to do so.
Favourite dishes are one enticing element of the three-generation family meal.
Conversation and stories shape the living bonds too.
However, my parents seldom volunteer anecdotes or transmit wisdom from their early life, unless I remember to ask.
We know the pioneer generation is modest. They think their lives are unremarkable and do not talk incessantly about themselves compared to younger people.
The good news is that there's more of a national push now to gather their stories of enterprise and survival before it's too late. Singapore, like some countries, also has an Eat With Your Family Day which has been themed 'a ritual of the heart'.
I know I can connect the dots of the Singapore story at the family level, if some of our dinner conversation returns intentionally to the lives and thoughts of the elders.
I have to say, though, that the family dinner has been a hit-or-miss occasion for me for a very long time.
Since the late teens, my life had been lived independently and outside the home. First, it was the exciting spectrum of school activities, and I loved being active. Later, it was the unpredictable hours of work. I'd also have dinner with friends after work.
Then I spent long years overseas, missing not only weekend family dinners but also holiday gatherings, birthdays and reunions.
Now, we are more conscious about sharing a meal. The happy contradiction is that even when life gets more hectic with the arrival of a third generation, we feel the pull of family more.
There's an aura about the shared meal - even if family circumstances are complicated - that brings people together.
The regular, reliable dinner anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has some place else they'd rather be, as a Time commentator wrote.
Last week, an American friend who's a young mother posted this on Facebook: 'Tuesday is our regular family night with bubble baths, taco salad and silly silliness.'
Some form of play like that is great in the family too.
After our Sunday dinner, my mum sat in front of the TV. My sister arrived late and started her dinner. Some of us sat around her, with my other sister planning a trip on her laptop and my brother-in-law flipping on the entertainment on his iPad.
One child was reading, the other was playing games on the iPhone. My dad moved around.
It's like the parallel play that very young children get involved in. In the same room, absorbed in different delights, yet connected.
At the family dinner too, we may be on opposite trajectories, not always listening to each other or in the best of moods.
But we still make it to the firstname.lastname@example.org