As more Singaporeans receive higher education and prefer comfortable working conditions, foreign labors play significant role in producing material objects such as buildings. Things get complicated, however, when they also become an important source of labor for the production of cultural objects, such as food.
Because foreign laborers have not participated in Singapore’s social life, they do not possess the same taste for food as Singaporeans. Common complaints about cooks from China are that their versions of local delicacies such as char kway teow and chap chye peng are too salty. This is common in commercial kitchens helmed by immigrants. Think about Japanese and Korean cuisine prepared by Latinos in the United States.
However, cheese anthropologist Heather Paxson argues that a taste for cultural objects “can be accrued through the production no less than the consumption of status goods.” Therefore, hippie cheese makers in the United States may be decidedly cash poor, but through developing their artisanal skills in hope for additional income, they may acquire new taste.
Last month I attended the National Day dinner reception at the Singapore consulate in New York. The kueh pie ti was prepared by the Filipino domestic helper of the Singapore ambassador. Through our conversation, I learnt that she was taught to make this Peranakan dish by her previous employer, also an ambassador. She also makes other Singaporean dishes whenever the ambassador hosts at her place.
If you were raised by foreign domestic helpers like me, you probably grew up eating your own ethnic food prepared by these “outsiders” too. These “aunties”, as I used to call them, learnt how to cook local recipes from my mother as well as people (grocers and other domestic helpers) they met at the wet market. Thanks to them, my family recipes expanded to include those from other families too.
Thus, I do not believe that nationality or class determines one’s taste or appreciation for certain flavors. That is to imply that taste is intrinsic, taste is constant. Our likes and dislikes are indeed so ingrained in us, that we mistake it as “natural”. The truth is, preferences are culturally developed over time. Given time, foreign laborers can produce food that satisfies our tastes, as we have seen among many domestic helpers.