alex :)
constantly nervous about everything
likes music, books, chem and soft toys
always up for an adventure (despite much trepidation)

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The Gastronomical Misadventures of a Not-So-Happy Camper

June 16, 2020

A clatter rang out behind me, and I turned to see our pot spill its fragrant, delicious-looking contents all across the concrete floor, along with the horrified faces of a dozen students and our instructor looking very sorry indeed. In that instant I had never wanted more to kill a man. But to truly understand this murderous intent I must explain from the beginning, from a slimy mess tin slicked with oil and the choking soot of a solid-fuel-induced flame, to a can of the fakest-looking fish I had ever seen in my entire life. 

As a fifteen-year-old Singaporean student last year, I underwent the ritual all fifteen-year-old Singaporean students must undergo eventually: being shipped off to somewhere ulu, like a neighbouring island or a far-off coast of Singapore, and being left to die. I personally was plopped straight into Pulau Ubin, an island northeast of the mainland. The ferry honked merrily as it dropped us and our bags off, as if having a jolly laugh at our expense. To prevent the volatile mixture of way-too-enthusiastic and way-too-tired students from erupting into "Lord of the Flies: Asian Edition", awaiting us was our camp and its instructors. Thus began the five day Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) camp. 

While lunch was provided in the form of a single pack of tortilla wraps and the aforementioned tin of suspiciously glutinous meat, the same unfortunately could not be said for dinner. As the sun set over whatever campsite we had clawed our way to that evening, we unpacked the tents, started the fires and began to cook. Our ingredients were always a surprise, one day udon and the next bee hoon, though we cooked all in a sub-par fashion regardless. Even so, dinnertime was a time for winding down and relaxation. It was the time for putting aloe vera on our mosquito bites from hiking or our sunburns from kayaking and complaining about our aching shoulders numb from the heavy backpacks, as everyone sat down criss-cross applesauce on the slightly damp mats in one big circle, stuffing their faces with half-burnt udon and watery bee hoon

And as water boiled in the mess tins, it seemed as though something else was stirring inside us. How a petite girl, short as could be, established herself "head of the house", flitting back and forth between groups to do whatever she could, be it standing guard over the pot with fervour or scraping out the last traces of mystery meat from a can. How a boy I barely knew from school with warm brown eyes stopped to help me hoist a basin full of water up two flights of stairs without a word. How people washed others' mess tins and cutlery, sharing whatever traces of dish soap remained, or downed their portions without a word of complaint as they sat together, laughing.

With me returning home from school at six or later and my parents having disparate work schedules stretching till early morning the next day, our household had never enforced the habit of eating dinner together, for the sake of practicality. But while we spent quality family time in other ways, I realised cooking and eating together did bring people together in its own delicious, or in this case not-so-delicious, way. Just as a hungry stomach was never picky, whatever grievances we held against one another melted away in the hustle and bustle of washing, chopping, stirring and eating. Food was just plain necessary, and that necessity allowed people to band together.

That brings me back to the beginning, with our spilt pot and hapless instructor ruining about an hour's worth of work on the very last night of our camp. In that moment our hearts all dropped to the floor; yet after a second of shock, disappointment and anger, these feelings subsided. The instructor provided us with spare ingredients and his sincere apology and we began cooking once again. If this had been on our first night, it probably would've turned out much differently- no doubt some would have flopped onto the mat and called it a day, resigning to an empty stomach or pushing the job onto others. But the days of struggling through thick and thin, be it situations or soggy noodles, imparted that night's dinner with an importance one just couldn't say no to. So after an extra hour, a steaming pot of carrots, corn, lettuce and as always, noodles, brought us together as the last meal of the day and our times together. The soup was watery as usual, spiced only with the sparse bits of chicken stock we managed to scrape together. Yet the yellow, ripe corn gave bursts of sweetness that were packed together with the crunchiness of carrot and lettuce, giving the noodles a plain yet wholehearted satisfaction only fresh ingredients can truly provide. Somehow it tasted better than ever before, although I doubt our cooking skills had improved at all over the five days. Sometimes the love and care we give each other is more than enough to sweeten the pot.

A few days after the camp I started learning how to cook. As I laid the dishes on the table with my own humble contribution, a bowl of scrambled egg, cucumber and tomato slices tossed with sauce, my mother asked, "Why the sudden want to learn how to cook?"

I thought back to warm fires, hungry stomachs and a bunch of teenagers who were practically strangers bonding over their mediocre creations. I thought about how if such a phenomenon could repeat itself, I wanted to see it. How I wanted to be the one to create it for others.

"Just felt like it," I shrugged.
ulu- "remote" in Malay
udon- Japanese wheat pasta made in thick strips
bee hoon- an Asian rice vermicelli


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  • Anha

    june 2020 wtw highlights are live, and you're in them!

    5 months ago
  • Stone of Jade

    This is amazing!! You really make this more about food and it works in such a captivating and descriptive way. The flow is flawless! Good luck!

    6 months ago