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Food is more than just sustenance

Some of you might know it as hot pot, but in Singapore it’s more than just that. “Steamboat” is what they call hot pot; a small boiling pot of yummy broth, freshly cooked meat, and steamy veggies. Steamboat parties are a guaranteed way to get a group of people together to mingle and catch up, sort of like when events offer free pizza, but better. Hosting a steamboat party requires a lot of teamwork, from buying the right types of tofu people want in the steamboat to passing cooked Napa cabbage into a friend’s bowl. People happily slurp from their bowls together, in a collective moment of comfort.

My Tembusu Residential College orientation group hosting a steamboat party gathering for all of us to catch up on how school had been so far.

In “Singlish,” the nickname for Singaporean-English slang, there’s a term that describes the collective purchasing of food requests on other people’s behalf because it happens so often: jio. I hear it almost on a daily basis, from a spontaneous “flash jio” to a late night “supper jio”. I personally have impulsively bought quite a few McSpicy’s from supper jios as midnight snacks while studying with my suitemate (if you’re ever in southeast Asia, get yourself to a McDonald’s and try a McSpicy; they’re impeccable).

Seriously, try it.

Steamboat parties are spaces where everybody shares and takes part in the creation and consumption of a meal. With jios, students extend their kindness to others in the form of food delivery. I use these examples to describe a phenomenon I’ve noticed especially within Singaporean culture, but one I know to be true across the world. Food is more than just sustenance: food starts conversation, food brings people together, food highlights a country’s culture. It’s more than just something to eat—food creates community.

And although this concept wasn’t news to me, noticing this while living abroad made me realize just how important it was to use food to combat homesickness (and not in that way where you eat an entire pint of ice cream while crying and watching Netflix). Whether it be discovering that local dish you absolutely love, going to a new restaurant with acquaintances, or in my case, ordering a late night McSpicy to munch on with my suitemate, food can be the catalyst in creating a new community and home in a new place.

Kothu prata, one of my favorite dishes from a restaurant in Little India.

A classmate and I stumbled upon a delicious, hipster dessert cafe.

Kaya (coconut jam) toast, kopi C (coffee with condensed milk), and soft boiled eggs with soy sauce and white pepper. Although relatively simple and common in Singapore, this is my dream breakfast.

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