Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

Review: From Mee to You by Chef Justin Quek (SIFA 2021)

Letting the culinary arts bring people together and SIFA to a close.

When it comes to an arts festival, few people would include or even consider the culinary arts a relevant part of the lineup. But just as watching a live theatre performance can bring people closer together, so can food – even if we’re physically apart.

That idea of a shared meal is what sparked the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) programme From Mee to You, where celebrated chef Justin Quek delivers a DIY lunch kit to your doorstep, allowing you to cook up his special Mee Siam in the comfort of your own home. As its title suggests, the mee siam acts as a gift from SIFA to audiences, allowing us all to enjoy the same meal across the country, wherever we are.

Each exquisite mee siam set, comes with everything you’d need for the mee siam broth, bee hoon and garnish, delivered right to your house. Afraid of burning down the kitchen? Never fear – Justin Quek even prepared an instructional cooking video to ensure viewers could follow every last step with ease and get their homemade mee siam fix.

Our delivery arrived without a hitch, neatly packed in a box from Chinoiserie (Chef Justin’s restaurant), before we spent Sunday morning preparing it according to Chef Justin’s clear instructions. I haven’t really cooked in a while, and in a way, it was a throwback to my childhood days as I helped my mum out in the kitchen, peeling prawns, boiling eggs and preparing the broth. Even if she didn’t know much about SIFA itself, it was an opportunity to tell her more about the shows we’d been watching, catching up while waiting for ingredients to cook, and just talking about our favourite food memories, or what we thought made a good mee siam.

As the aroma of the broth filled the house, as we talked and we watched the tutorial, I was reminded how the act of cooking could also be a communal activity, bringing people closer together by crafting a meal together. The result was a hearty serving of mee siam for the whole family, with a rich, flavourful broth, and bee hoon we savoured from start to end, all together at the same table, dedicating this time to share a meal and share about our week over conversation.

Beyond the act of cooking and eating the mee siam, From Mee to You also featured a talk between Chef Justin and Festival Director Gaurav Kripalani, as they talked about the convergence of arts and food, and how both have the ability to bring people closer. As friends for the last 20 years, it was natural for Gaurav to reach out to Chef Justin to be a part of SIFA.

Over the course of 30 minutes, Gaurav and Justin spoke about how, more than ever, there was a need for greater care and compassion, after a year in the pandemic. And for SIFA, struck by the Heightened Alert measures just as they were about to open, led to them having to cancel various programmes, as well as reduce audience numbers from 250 to 100 for safe distancing. From Mee To You, while originally envisioned as an outdoor picnic, was then changed to its current form, ultimately with the intent to feature the art of cooking and to create a shared culinary experience.

On Justin’s choice of mee siam, he commented how it was probably one of the easiest, most inexpensive dishes to make, and quintessentially Singaporean. Almost every race has their own version of it, and it is often prepared in large quantities, such that everyone can help themselves to it. It also helps that it’s often a breakfast food, perfect for enjoying alongside this morning brunch talk. For this particular mee siam, Justin went for some of his better ingredients, where the key lies in the paste. His secret? Good use of tamarind, coconut milk, and a killer sweet and sour chili rempah.

Justin’s approach to food combines his training in French cuisine with his Asian heritage, where he has boiled it down to three elements – protein, fibre and starch, allowing him to serve out balanced meals every time. With a seasoned palate, it could take anything between a few days to a few weeks to come up with a new recipe, with the final dish just a matter of refinement, plating and perfecting. For Justin, he always gives his best in every meal, and what’s most important is someone telling him that they enjoyed and appreciated what he’s prepared, and just seeing them bond over food.

Perhaps the most salient part of the talk was when Gaurav and Justin got real, and discussed the difficulties both the arts and F&B industries have faced during this time. On the F&B side, restaurants had to work fast to adapt to doing takeaway and delivery after not being able to dine out, dealing financial blows to many establishments. Justin mentions how Chinoiserie was never meant to be a takeaway restaurant, and had no choice but to pivot, yet managed to create a new a la carte menu for such times, as a means of survival, and the hope that they get through it to return to better times in future.

Similarly, Gaurav reveals the difficult process of adapting the festival to the new restrictions, and how much of a beating they’ve taken over the last few months, with how work they presented must have been feasible for both online and physical presentation – some artists he approached refused to participate if they could not present their work live, as it would compromise on the quality. Even with those that did agree, the SIFA team had to constantly come up with a Plan B or even C, in case of a total shut down again, where the festival could not afford to completely skip another year. All of that is testament to the resilience of the team and the artists who have presented work over the last three weeks, pulling through in spite of all the difficulties.

As we sat at the table together eating our mee siam and watching the talk, we were reminded of how much there is to be grateful for amidst the challenges the year has thrown at us, and how important it is to take a moment to take some time out from our busy lives and share a meal.

It is this moment of mindfulness that From Mee to You filled us with on the last day of SIFA 2021, and as Gaurav puts it, “Think for a moment about all the people around the country having the same meal as you, connecting through food together, celebrating the end of our national arts festival, taking place in spite of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

From Mee to You ran online on 30th May 2021 as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here

The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021. Shows will be available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here  

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