I remember my first introduction to German food. It was during one of my first visits to the country, and my friends had organised a food tour through the local villages in Bavaria to get me acquainted with the tastes and delicacies of the region. I gamely stripped the skin off a weiβwurst (white veal sausage with herbs), dipped it into sweet mustard and washed it down with a swig of weiβbier (wheat beer). Then I chewed on a brezel (pretzel) the size of my face and slurped my way through a bowl of leberknodel suppe (liver dumplings in a beef broth).
But when they brought out the dish with the sauerkraut, my friends gasped. They exchanged glances and whispers, observing me with bated breath as I dragged my fork through the mound of pickled cabbage, raked a generous mouthful and shovelled it between my lips. I’d had sauerkraut before, but this was supposed to be authentic, not like the imitation versions we got back home in Singapore. In terms of texture, it was mushy and soft, like overcooked pohpiah filling. Taste wise, it was a little sour, a little salty, and of course, a little funky.
“You’re brave,” said one of my friends, her eyes growing big and round as she watched me chew.
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
That’s when I learnt, from my German friends, that to most foreigners, sauerkraut supposedly smells like wet socks. Okay. So maybe not wet socks exactly, but the olfactory reputation of sauerkraut isn’t one of the finest around, to say the least. People say it stinks, said my friends. Some say it smells like a fart, they warned.
I smiled politely and giggled to myself. Sauerkraut was smelly? Oh, please. In a place like Singapore where the durian, belacan and century eggs are everyday foods, sauerkraut was little more than child’s play. In fact, it was so mild compared to the pungent flavours I grew up with that it might as well have been a dessert.
Century Egg Salad
Strange foods, after all, have been part of a normal Singaporean diet from the day that we were born. And whereas most of the European kids I know here are fed on an all-too-predictable diet of pommes (French fries) and nuggets, the kids of my Singaporean friends are already experimenting with salmon sashimi, sambal petai, or chicken feet, dimsum style.
My adult palate constantly seeks new challenges—animal parts and blood and brain, slimy natto beans, creamy fish milt, bugs and worms, and white ant eggs. If I had a chance, I’d happily try some of that rotten fish from Sweden they call surströmming, and while I’m at it, perhaps a side of bird-stuffed seal skin the Eskimos call kiviak as well. I’ll eat anything at least once, except for meat from animals that have been tortured, or food that’s still alive. Oh. And cockroaches. Definitely no cockroaches.
Ant Egg Soup
Fried Scorpion Snack
I have a big appetite for the strange and smelly, and many of my Singaporean friends possess a similar curiosity where food is concerned. When many of us holiday overseas, the trip is not complete until we’ve had a feast of local delicacies—the stranger, the more authentic; and the more authentic, the more rewarding.
Our exposure to the many kinds of different foods and cuisines back home has made us not just accepting of, but also hungry for new tastes and adventures. It’s an openness that translates into a willingness to adapt and experiment, and is a mindset that goes beyond just food alone. Instead of feeling suspicious of, or threatened by cultures that are unfamiliar to us, our curiosity is more likely to lead us to try something new, learn from it, and then adopt the best elements that will both complement and enrich our existing identities.
It’s a little bit like how my German husband and I have now graduated to speaking in a weird sort of German-English-Singlish at home. Our dog responds to commands in all three languages, and our texts and notes to each other are peppered with German words, but in English sentence structures. Food is a strange hybrid of Asian umami, and fresh, seasonal ingredients from local supermarkets. Hochzeit nudeln (German pasta noodles), tossed in Napa cabbage cooked with dried shrimp, garlic, and fish sauce, and topped with stir-fried pfifferlingen (chanterelles), anyone?
Our ability to adapt to change and embrace new influences is perhaps one of the reasons why Singapore continues to do so well. We’re constantly pushing boundaries and sniffing out new challenges; stagnancy just isn’t in our blood.
So I’ll continue to devour my century eggs and lick durian from my fingers even as my non-Singaporean friends pinch their noses and suck in their lips because someone added too much garlic to the stir-fry. My appetite for the strange has cultivated a curiosity for the world. Ultimately, my ability to see past the unfamiliar and attempt new adventures allows me not just to survive, but also to thrive, no matter where I am in the world.