Why start a blog with the past? It’s simply because every other person that I know who has a great love affair with food, their story always started with their family; the way they grew up. Incidentally those are also what I greatly consider the basis of what you would consider as the sort of food that moves you, what you or I would consider as good food. Don’t get me wrong that the food from my past tastes great, it may not be delicious on the tongue today but because it is seasoned with nostalgia, it evokes the senses in a different way.
Nostalgia comes from the greek work Nostos which means homecoming and Algos which means longing or an ache. In the words of Don Drapper from Mad Men, ” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” French writer Marcel Proust wrote (in “Remembrance of Things Past”) about seeing madeleines in abundance and felt nothing, until that pivotal moment which his aunt started handing him one of these little shell shaped cakes after dipping it into her cup of lime flower tea before church every Sunday, and since then, every time he saw madeleines, he remembered its flavour, the smell of his aunt’s house, the lime flower tea, and his heart ached for that distant memory.
I, on the other hand loved food ever since I was a child because my father had a passionate love affair with it. In the 80s (when traveling on an aeroplane wasn’t common), he visited Italy for work and was seduced by the simplicity of their food, the comfort of their flavours and he fell in love with Italian coffee. He shipped home some of the most interesting machinery of its time, like a Gaggia home espresso machine , a pasta machine (which you could also make those lovely pressed italian cookies) and an ice-cream machine (it had a built in compressor). My parents used to work till really late, so my sister and I hardly spent much time with them unless it was the weekend or if I stayed up late. I remember late nights of ice-cream making, and making frollini cookies (a crumbly shortbread). I was 3 years old. With his help, i was lifted to stand on a stool, so that I could watch him, talk to him and occasionally help to stir. I had my dad to myself and that started my love for cooking.
Over the years, I progressed from stirring to cutting vegetables, and many the times, just standing on the side watching him cook. He explained to me things like what herbs went with which vegetables or meat, how you should cook pasta, or why you should never do certain things. Daddy loved cooking Italian food, European in general and Japanese food. He taught me foundational techniques, and my favourite is how to make a very good stock or soup. Daddy was ambitious and had an ever curious mind. He wanted to learn. He had enrolled himself in a cooking school in the 80s with Hilton hotel and was the only gent in class. There he learned classical cooking, and made a lot of friends who have become dear family friends of ours.
My mother on the other hand, was the typical Asian mother, she preferred us not in the kitchen when she is cooking but whatever sorcery she performs in there (which we will never quite know), her Chinese food always tastes fantastic. I’ve tried asking her for recipes or to teach me how to cook her recipes but her response to that is some scant description of what she does, or (what I suspect) an abbreviated version of what is in her ingredient list. She was not quite the teacher. Her sister on the other hand, used to come over to cook for us on weekdays when I was in my teens and I used to watch her cook while chatting with her about my day. My aunt is the best Cantonese cook that I know, without a doubt! She would let me help her in the kitchen and I learned how to make Chinese soups, sweet and sour pork, and some other simple Chinese dishes.
I grew into my own when I studied in Melbourne. My favourite activity was going to Queen Victoria Market on Fridays (they closed later at 5pm) or Saturday mornings. I would slowly go through the stalls inspecting their produce and figuring out what to buy for the week, I loved asking the grocers for their opinion on how they would cook it, or what they thought was in its peak. Melbourne is a cosmopolitan city. They have some of the best restaurants (in terms of quality and diversity) and coffee shops congregated in this little Australian garden state. I would even speak to restaurant staff and the Italian restaurant that I used to frequent, one of the waiters even told me how to make the best carbonara (noting that every Italian you ask about food is critical and will also tell you that their mother or nonna is the best cook). So for 3.5 years, I experimented heavily in the kitchen, I ate well in cafes or restaurants, hosted many dinner parties at my rented studio apartment and was constantly inspired by the city I regard as home. Even till now, when I walk past a pho (vietnamese beef noodles) shop, I can still taste distant memory of the pho from Pho Dzung along Russel St, which is also why I am usually sorely disappointed when I cave into my cravings and decide to order pho everywhere else.
When I was 31, my father passed away. I went through a period of immense grief. I am realistic and know that everyone has to die. That is one certainty that we can’t escape from. What blindsided me was the fact that he passed away in his sleep. He had a health check a week before and the results were better than his last. I was expecting him for dinner 2 days later for fathers’ day. I was inconsolable. In grief, I made a very dramatic decision (2 months after his death) to quit my job and try my hand at online baking. I had self taught to bake 3 years before as a challenge to make desserts better because I cooked savoury so well and desserts were a let down. That was in 2011 when online bakeries were not as heard of in Singapore. Most people got known or discovered through word of mouth or a brick and mortar shop. It was a very daring act because I was doing well at work, I was successful in my job and enjoyed the company that I was part of. Unfortunately, I needed that break. I needed to know if I could start something of my own. So in late August 2011, I took the plunge. This was my ode to my dad.
I decided on the name MilkBar because when I was living in Melbourne, I thought how wonderful it would be to own a Milk Bar ( a corner general store that sold the essentials, newspapers, magazines, ice-cream, sandwiches and sometimes food that the owner made). The one I adored was the one around the corner from where I lived with my previous boyfriend in Richmond. How I loved running in to get some newspapers and ice-cream.
Within week of quitting my job, MilkBar was registered as an entity. It was marketed through Facebook and its own “dummy” site (which sole aim was to lead visitors to Facebook.) Within a week of this, I said to my very supportive husband that I needed to know early if this will fly or if i should just pull myself together and go back to work. So I put together a media pack for 8 days magazine ( a weekly magazine in Singapore about entertainment and lifestyle) and another for the fashion magazine, Elle. Within a few hours, I received a call from one of 8 days’ food journalist telling me how much the office absolutely loved the baked goods and conserves, then asking me for a date for an interview which would be written as an article in 2 weeks time. I was over the moon. MilkBar started with a bang. We did pop-ups, fairs, and collaborations with cafes or companies. My husband and best friend, were there with me for all of the events, helping me to man the stall and even sort the logistics. I went on to do more interviews with Wall Street Journal Asia, Business Times to name a few, and my tart even got featured on the cover of Appetite magazine. I was the unofficial SMEG spokesperson for a while. The hours put into this job was long, I had stopped having time to spend with my family or husband over the weekend, or even time to meet friends. I did not want to open a brick and mortar shop, I wanted to stick to my principles of producing very good food that paid homage to traditional, simple and good confectionery products. I wanted to only use premium ingredients like President Butter, Valrhona Chocolate, Nielsen-Massey Vanilla and organic milk. My speciality was that people could customise cakes tarts or any dessert by flavour and I would create something just for them. The food industry in Singapore is fickle. It thrives on novelty. Then the industry was frivolous and the consumers’ attention was being diverted to rainbow cakes and fondant cakes. I refused to budge (you will never see me make any of those). So I felt it was time to reassess my priorities and I realised that if my personal life couldn’t reach a balance, I would very soon resent this work and business that I was passionate about. I had to do something.
I went back to work at the same company that I was in before I left to embark on MilkBar. I took in much lesser orders than before, limiting them to weekends. I took a breather from all that madness. It was as though I reverted to enjoying my time in the kitchen, experimenting on food and flavours. That was 3 years ago. Then one day, I thought to myself, what I enjoy is writing, photography (amongst the many other hobbies that I had) and just being able to be creative. So that brought me to this, the inception of this blog “Dreaming in Flavours”. I want to share my love for food. The adventures that I take to find food, or create food. The inspirations that my experiences have on what I eat or create. 2017 is going to be the start of another chapter of my life and I’m looking forward to it.