Writer Natalie Pattillo grew up between Singapore and Texas—two places with strong but distinct culinary identities—with parents who loved to cook. For Here Magazine Issue 6, she explores the true role of food in making sense of her identity.
Recently, at the post office, I saw a young boy translating for his mom. He patiently transitioned from Spanish to English, mom to postal worker, answering questions. Immediately, I was transported back to my own childhood, a time when I filled out utility bills, medical forms, and checks for my mom. I perfected my cursive and silently hoped that my handwriting didn’t look like it came from an eight-year-old. My mom grew up poor in Singapore in the 1950s and 60s, before it was urbanized. Her father forbade her from going to school; he felt that girls didn’t need an education. My mom paid for his sexist beliefs into her adulthood.
My dad is from Texas and moved to Singapore to work on an offshore oil rig. He met my mom, and soon after they got married and then had my brother, Omar, and me. Since my dad worked on rigs in places like Indonesia and Venezuela, he was home for 30 days and then gone for 30 days at a time. We lived in a two-story house with a huge backyard near Singapore’s airport before moving to Alpine, Texas, a rural town of 5,000, in 1999.
After our family moved, my mom had trouble finding the fresh produce and meat she used to score at the Geylang market back in Singapore. I can remember her sitting at the kitchen table in Alpine with a cookbook, unable to decipher a recipe without help, and her confusion at the unrecognizable labels at the grocery store. I was raised Muslim, and figuring out what was made without pork in West Texas was nerve-racking for my mom and me during our shopping excursions. Kids gawked at the lunches my mom made me and didn’t understand how, if I was Asian, I didn’t “look like Jackie Chan.” Since my dad is white, many kids asked me if he was my real dad. I never told my friends about my mom’s illiteracy because we treated it like a family secret. As an immigrant kid, you just want to blend in. Eventually, my mom acclimated—as we all inevitably do—and created meals that were an accidental marriage of Mexican, American, and Singaporean foods. Her enchiladas are still the best I’ve ever had.
In Alpine, it was rare for my mom to let me into the kitchen while she was cooking. I recall her saying that she didn’t want me to get burned by hot oil or be in her way, but I think she really didn’t want any trespassers entering her sanctuary. Sometimes, I’d watch from the dining table while she cooked turmeric fried chicken. The battered meat hitting the oil sounded like a heavy rainfall. The smells were intoxicating and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it—salty, crispy, and tender.
The battered meat hitting the oil sounded like a heavy rainfall.
With my dad, cooking came with less rigidity. Some Saturday mornings, we would break the kitchen rules and I’d stand near the stove while the two of us made pancakes together. (It’s a tradition I’ve upheld with my daughter, even though I prefer savory omelettes nowadays.) He had a stool for me so I could reach the stovetop, where he would show me his trick to making the best pancakes: rubbing a tiny bit of canola oil onto the spatula. The slick spatula made it much easier to flip the pancake smoothly. To this day, I never miss that step.
Whenever my dad came home from work, I could hardly wait for him to prepare us his specialty: Tex-Mex cheese dip. He would throw a block of Velveeta cheese and a can of Rotel tomatoes into a small casserole dish and put it in the microwave for five minutes. I, with saltine crackers or tortilla chips in hand, was always ready to devour the bubbly concoction as soon as the timer chimed.
When we wanted to satisfy our hankerings for real Mexican food, my dad and I got into our minivan and drove down the street to La Casita. Nestled between houses in a residential neighborhood on the south side of Alpine, I loved that the restaurant was so aptly named. There, we ordered nachos, always with jalapeños on top. My dad ordered a giant unsweetened iced tea and “The Mexican Plate,” a special that included an obscene amount of food: enchiladas, Spanish rice, pinto beans, two hard-shelled beef tacos, and a side salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes. Over those meals, he suggested books I should read, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Color Purple. We also talked about the boys I liked (or hated) and made jokes about how stupid they could be.
I find myself time-traveling by cooking.
Before, in Singapore, my mother’s cooking felt more accessible. I remember my mom and dad making homemade chapati on a flat iron pan, and my mom cooking extravagant meals for dinners, birthdays, and get-togethers. She would take Omar and me to Geylang, a predominantly Malay neighborhood. While there, she’d find and barter for ingredients like fresh fish and lemongrass at the wet market. When aunts, uncles, and cousins came over, she’d cook giant batches—enough for an army of 30—of nasi goreng, rendang, curry, sambal, fried chicken wings, tempeh, and fried bananas. I think those dishes were a way for her to show the love she couldn’t otherwise express.
On most weekends, my dad would gently wake Omar and me at five in the morning. As I wiped away the “boogers” from my eyes, I was tempted to pull the covers over my head. Then, I’d catch the wafting smell of sizzling beef sausages and eggs, and perk up. My dad was making “Happy Face Eggs,” known to most as eggs-in-a-hole. He always had a giant bowl of fresh-cut melon, strawberries, and bananas on the table, as well. My dad made sure our bellies were full before we took the number 2 bus straight to Changi Beach on Singapore’s northeast shore.
Waves are like memories, opening themselves up to you.
At the beach, my brother, dad, and I would walk along the shoreline, taking in the briny ocean air. Once in the water, I loved licking the salt off my lips. The whole point of waking up while it was still dark was to watch the sunrise; now, almost 25 years later, I can still remember the sun lighting the sky with bursts of pale pinks and golden oranges, making the water glisten. I remember watching the cold waves hit my tiny feet as I searched for the coolest seashells—ones that would impress Omar. I remember how empty the beach was at that time of day, as though it was there for just the three of us.
Over the past few years, since moving to New York City, I find myself time-traveling by cooking. I look through old family photos and recreate meals like mee goreng, chicken curry, nachos, and chicken-fried steaks. I miss my family in Singapore dearly, and the country’s delicious food. I daydream about the breakfast burritos from West Texas on a daily basis. Cooking forces me to be present (“Don’t burn anything or chop off your fingers, Natalie”) while honoring and attempting to decipher the past.
Today, when I’m at a beach, I often think about how waves are like memories, opening themselves up to you, taking you in, surging through you with a rush as water gets into your nose and mouth, and then leaving you wanting more. I’m certain that food—both cooking and savoring meals—has that same power.