O.P.E.N. Kitchens

Ng Yi-Sheng

July 25, 2017

Hiya folks! I’m back from last year, and I’ll be dropping by again to preview and review a number of shows for our beloved Festival Director Ong Keng Sen’s very last SIFA.

I wasn’t around for that much of The O.P.E.N. this year—Singapore’s arts scene is so busy that I’m bound to be aesthetically promiscuous unless under contract—but I did catch a few items, including Lebanese culinary activist Kamal Mouzawak’s lecture-cum-picnic Make Food Not War.

Make Food Not War2

And what a utopian vision it was: fostering national and international community through sharing one another’s meals and produce! World peace with an amuse-bouche and dessert! Yes, it is eye-poppingly bourgeois, and Kamal’s assertions of not being a pretentious intellectual beggar belief. But food is a far more democratic cultural medium than, say, theatre.

Which brings us to O.P.E.N. Kitchens, Noorlinah Mohamed’s series of encounters where guests are invited to cook and dine with a diverse range of Singapore residents.

I attended two sessions!

1) Keep practising till it gets better with Lkhvinder Dhillon and her daughter Amrita on the morning of Sat 15 July. This was held at their flat and co-hosted by Lkhvinder’s sister Kit and her niece Sonia, and we made the following Punjabi dishes:

Chicken masala
Cucumber salad
Chapatti
Chai-flavoured cupcakes (OK, all we did was frost these; they’re actually from Amrita’s company, Buttery SG: https://www.instagram.com/buttery_sg/ )
Chai (we didn’t make this at all; we were just served it)

Lkhvinder Chicken Masala

2) Remembering St. Petersburg with Tanya Krasheninnikova on the evening of Tuesday 18 July. This was held in a Geylang shophouse space specially rented for the event, and we made the following Russian dishes:

Crab stick salad
Borsch (served with rye bread)
Apple cake (again, it was Tanya who made this) 
Raspberry brownies (Tanya made this, and it isn’t actually traditionally Russian)

Tanya Borscht

Most folks only got to attend one session, because it’s limited to one session per ticket—and just as well, or we’d have loads of people booking things and not turning up. But luckily for me, my boyfriend had a ticket and wasn’t interested in going, so I got to use his pass.

And what was it like?

Well, for starters, it wasn’t like Open Homes in 2016, which I was expecting, given that it operated on a similar theme of meeting ordinary folks and learning about their domestic lives. Nor was it like Noorlinah’s previous O.P.E.N. offerings like 15 Stations and Club Malam.

Crucially, these events aren’t very theatrical. The hosts do tell stories about their lives, but not in a clearly performative way—they happen off the cuff while they’re sautéing onions or when they’re asked a question by Anita Kapoor (who co-hosts the events) or Noorlinah or a general member of the audience.

Sometimes, the stories do get quite emotional—Lkhvinder teared up while she was talking about the process of raising her daughter as a single mother, which Noorlinah told us did not happen in previous runs (what were rehearsals like anyhow?).

But most of the time in that house it was all four women talking at once, which they said was just how Indian families are. Less art and more life.

Lkhvinder

And meanwhile the audience was concentrating on getting stuff done: peeling garlic and slicing beetroot, or else just assiduously taking notes on the spice mix and how to make sure you don’t ruin your curry. More instrumental, less aesthetic.

And because we had audiences in the upper twenties, a lot of the experience involved chit-chatting with one another, not with the hosts. Discussing how authentic Punjabi food and authentic Tamil food and bastardised Indian food for Chinese tastes (e.g. fish head curry) are completely different. Memories of eating Russian-Hainanese cuisine at Shashlik. Debating why the Russians never embraced spiciness, although other northern peoples like the Scots and the Japanese did.

Tanya 1

Or just babbling on about our own lives, as you do when you’re gathered together at a long table.

It’s very strange, the whole exercise of this. It’s definitely an education, as we learn about heritage (did you know that crab stick salad used to be a wonderfully expensive and exotic dish until the 1940s, when Russia started manufacturing their own crab sticks? And that it doesn’t really taste better with real crab?). And it’s plain fun, making friends and snapping Instagrammable pictures while black-shirted volunteers do the real washing-up.

So it is enriching and worth it and all that jazz. But how is this different from anything that a non-arts organisation would do? I can easily imagine this as part of HeritageFest or even an initiative by the People’s Association in community centres across the island.

Also, what does it mean when we only engage with middle class households, rather than those of marginalised foreign workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines? (Culture Kitchen has tried to use cuisine to talk about our migrant workers in this way—here’s their site: http://culturekitchen.sg/ )

What I do know is that the event does draw in a non-theatre crowd. Several of the folks in attendance had attending The O.P.E.N. simply as film buffs, catching shows at The Projector. The act of cooking and serving food is fundamentally welcoming.

So maybe this event is simply being held to pave the way for HeritageFest and PA and maybe even the Ministry of Education to do stuff like this in the future.

Less art and more life. Hard to be irritated by that. Life is a wonderful thing, after all.

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  • 2017