My name is Wasfiyah. I spent my childhood and early adult life in Singapore where I was born. As such, most of the foods that inspire me from my early years are those from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Growing up Muslim in a country where the predominant culture was Chinese, however, meant I was expected to stay away from pork and, basically, all Chinese food, as pork would usually have been served or prepared in the dishes or equipment used for non-pork dishes. But there was another hidden message. Keep a distance from the Chinese.
As for the smaller community of Indians in Singapore, they had food restrictions that trumped the Muslims — beef was prohibited from the Hindu diet, and many Hindus took it a step further to a vegan diet. Besides, pork was not a traditional meat with non-vegan Hindus. So, Indian food was incorporated into what was permitted in my community. That left the Chinese as the only prohibition.
I enjoyed what Chinese food I could as well as the many dishes created by the confluence of different cultures and enjoyed by all Singaporeans. Fruit was enjoyed by all. The abundance of tropical fruits meant that they take center stage as desserts and snacks. I grew up with steamed and rice-based Asian cakes, and preserved fruit and seeds were the preferred snacks of Asian children in South-East Asia. At home, my mother would prepare Indonesian, Arabic and Turkish foods, a homage to my family’s ethnic heritage, as well as many local Malay and Indian dishes as well. Street food from traveling hawker push carts were common in 1960s and 1970s Singapore, although these have now migrated to shopping center food courts in present day Singapore.
Having spent half a lifetime in New York City, these foods are my strongest connection to childhood memories — what I miss most besides my loved ones and what connects me on a deep, non-verbal level.