Photo courtesy of Jeannie Ho
In the second installment of our interview series, we meet up with Noorlinah, Director of The O.P.E.N. for a candid conversation on food, family and the arts.
XX: What do you enjoy most about directing The O.P.E.N.?
NM: One of the most wonderful things about working on The O.P.E.N. is that I get to engage with emerging and established artists, as well as the public. What I like is the interface between the public and the artist, and the fruitful dialogues that happen when the two parties collaborate.
For example, from 2014 to 2016, I worked on 3 massive public engagement art projects. The first one was called Ways of Wandering. We held an open call and received 300 applicants. There was a lot of interest from the public to collaborate with artists, to experience the arts in a deep way.
The following year we created an augmented reality project with 15 Stations at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Then in the third year, we had Club Malam at Old Kallang Airport, again working with 100 different members of the public collaborating with artists like Speak Cryptic. We weaved in NADA and Senyawa, two groups of musicians from Singapore and Indonesia respectively. Now in 2017, it is about Open Kitchens.
XX: Speaking of Open Kitchens, the kitchen is usually a private, intimate space, so what inspired you to turn it into a performance venue in Open Kitchens?
NM: I think it has always been a SIFA interest to find different ways to present artworks, or in reviewing, re-examining and relocating where the arts can be. We had Open Homes in 2015, where we converted living room spaces into mini-theatres. That seemed like a natural fit because living rooms are where families gather, talk about their dramas, and sometimes dramas explode in the living room — quarrels, or exciting news like wedding proposals. The living room space is a living theatre space.
So Open Kitchens is no different.
XX: So how did Open Kitchens come about?
NM: I told Keng Sen about wanting to do public engagement on food. And then he came back and said “Yeah, I think that is a great idea. I know this speaker. He’s a Lebanese chef, Kamal Mouzawak. He did a wonderful project called Make Food Not War.” Kamal is one of the 2016 Prince Claus Laureates – and Prince Claus is an organisation we have been working with since 2014.
Inspired by Kamal’s work, we spun off to locate 21 home cooks in Singapore. But the focus here is their stories. What is this important story they wish to share and how will it resonate with and affect or inspire the audience?
I met so many beautiful people with beautiful stories to tell. And each of them has such strong connections to the food they want to present and cook with the participants. It is a shame I don’t have that many slots — I only have 22.
And cooking at home is slowly becoming a dying art, not many people have time to cook. So everybody goes to the hawker centre — it’s cheaper too, to eat out. A plate of chicken rice costs $3.50, compared to the time and money spent on cooking. But hopefully with Open Kitchens, we activate the desire to return to the kitchen.
XX: What’s your favourite memory of the kitchen?
NM: The act of cooking together reminds me of when I was growing up. I lived in a family dominated by women — my mother, my aunt, my grandmother — and there was so much noise when they were cooking together. And I would be part of this cooking ‘league’. My duty — plucking the tails of taugeh, beansprouts or peeling onions. No knives because I might chop off my fingers or something.
There was so much camaraderie and joy in the food preparation, and then you eat together. That process, I think, is absent in quite a lot of families in Singapore, because of the pace we’re living in. Do you and your family cook together?
XX: Not so much now, everyone’s busy.
NM: Precisely. So that’s my favourite memory of the kitchen, especially the camaraderie, definitely.
To my mother, food is love. My mother no longer can cook — she’s 91 — she was a fantastic cook, and cooking was her life as well as her job — I mean she sees it as work. That’s her contribution to family life, providing food for the family, and she did it very, very well.
Every time she cooked, she would turn to me and say “Noor” — she calls me “Noor” — “Come and taste this”. I would taste it and she would ask, “How does it taste to you?” and then I would say “It’s great, I like it”. And then it passes.
I was the taster of the family, and she would always involve me in the cooking process. I used to have to beat the eggs. We didn’t use a mixer. I would use a traditional egg beater. It was like a spring, a coil, it bounces like that, oh my, it was so tiring, Even if it was for 5 minutes, my arms would feel like they were about to drop off. So she would involve me in that. Beat the eggs, weigh and sieve the flour, add the vanilla essence and then the taster test.
I’m remembering those moments now as I work on Open Kitchens.
XX: If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
NM: Maybe not a dish, but a type of food. If there is one thing I could eat every day, it would be vegetables. What about you?
XX: Old cucumber soup. That was my favourite when I was a child.
NM: It fascinates me how people like you — you’re 20 now, and the first dish you think about is the one you had growing up as a child. You don’t have it so often now, it appears less in your life and will disappear from the menu because it is a dish that a particular person from a particular period of time cooks for you and when they stop cooking it, and you don’t pick it up, you probably might not have it again.
XX: But even if I do it on my own, it won’t taste the same.
NM: Yes, but that’s okay! And that’s the point you see. I love mee siam and I always liked the mee siam my mother cooked. But she left no recipe, everything is by memory or ‘rasa’ [meaning taste]. So I cook it from memory too, remembering the taste of my childhood.
Now I cook it often. I don’t think it is the same mee siam as my mother’s. But that is the beauty of it. Food and tastes evolve. There is no originality or authenticity in food because it is all about evolution. That is the beauty of food, it still connects, even though it is slightly different.
You connect with the past, but you are not the past. You bring it along, but you evolve it, and evolve with it.
XX: Beyond the food, it’s so much more about human relationships.
NM: Yes, it is definitely that.