Published on 19 Sep 2021

Minor Issues: How my sons went from mac and cheese to mee pok

As a lifelong fan of mee pok (with chilli and lots of vinegar), one of my greatest regrets in life was when my two sons preferred the American staple, macaroni and cheese, above all other food.

The boys spent their foundational years in the Midwest of the United States. Lunch at school usually varied between spaghetti, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, burgers and mac and cheese.

Given that R was four at the time and S was just one, the boys understandably grew fond of simple flavours enhanced by salt and fat.

Their food preference was decidedly Western. The one exception was instant noodles. As an instant-noodle addict myself, it is perhaps natural that my sons enjoy it too.

Unfortunately, they liked only the bland chicken flavour, skipping yummy ones such as tom yum, curry and kimchi.

At the time, it was nearly impossible to get them to try any food that had spice in it. Curry was out of the question when they had trouble with even the black pepper at McDonald's, which has no kick.

It distressed me to watch my children reject home-cooked food with spice in it. The boys would ask for fast food, similar to what they ate in school, which was a red flag for me.

As food and identity are interlinked, it is no wonder that if kids are getting daily doses of American fast food at school, they would expect the same at home. Kids being kids, the ones who stand out as different are often ridiculed.

I know of Indian-American friends who would skip lunch, or hide themselves while eating, to avoid being teased for the Indian food in their school lunchboxes.

Our Chinese-American friends in the US also struggled to maintain their Asian identities there.

Many grew up wondering whether they were Chinese or American enough. Many eventually abandoned their Chinese roots and refused to speak, write or use the language.

I did not want my boys to be ashamed of their heritage, which is intertwined with the diversity of food from their home country. I wanted them to embrace the smells, tastes and tongues of home.

With these considerations, it became increasingly clear that our family needed to return to Singapore.

By then, my wife had completed her master's, and we decided the best thing to do for the boys would be to move back home. R was seven at the time and S was four.

Adjusting to Singapore was tough for the kids. They had grown used to the play-oriented curriculum of their Montessori school in the Midwest, which was far less academically oriented than the Singapore system.

They also had little exposure to Chinese in the US. We took assurance from the Ministry of Education website, which said that speaking or writing in Chinese would not be needed for R to enter Primary 1. R was woefully behind at the beginning and often sat in Chinese class with a blank look on his face as the teacher spoke.

Even S, who was in pre-school, felt the pressure of what he needed to know before he entered Primary 1.

The boys could not understand why there seemed to be a rat race around academic achievement and chafed at the incessant worksheets they had to do. As if to compensate, they frequently asked for mac and cheese, because it was a comfort food for them.

For years after we returned to Singapore, the children would ask to return to the US, their friends, easily available mac and cheese, and an easier pace.

More than a decade later, however, both boys have caught up in school, thanks to the tremendous support from teachers in their early years. R is completing his final year of polytechnic and S is in Secondary 4.

Over the years, both have developed a hardcore mee pok habit and can more comfortably deal with spices in local food. They enjoy the curries with their roti prata and often reach for sambal and chilli condiments.

The change probably has more to do with food availability than anything my wife and I did. Mac and cheese is just not easily found in the hawker centres and foodcourts we frequent as a family.

S is now so passionate about his mee pok that during the recent phase two (heightened alert) period, when dining in was curtailed, he refused to let his takeaway mee pok stew in its container before consuming it at home.

As we made our way to the car after picking up the family's order, he suddenly took out his container and started eating in the carpark, beside the car. I found a discarded chair nearby, which served as an impromptu table for his meal.

Between mouthfuls of noodles, he explained that mee pok is sensitive to heat. He added that for the noodles to have the optimal al dente bite, in concert with the freshly tossed condiments of lard, shallots and minced meat, the noodles need to be eaten immediately after preparation.

Hearing him say that was a proud moment for me. It marked the completion of the journey from mac and cheese to mee pok.

As in the film Ratatouille (2007), the taste of the titular humble vegetable dish brings food critic Anton Ego back to his mother's kitchen when he was a little boy.

In retrospect, I guess that is what I have always wished for my boys. That no matter where they are, the taste of mee pok will remind them of home, where they are loved and where they belong.

The writer is chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.

Source: The Straits Times