April 16, 2020

Nowadays, with everyone sequestering themselves at home, honest, good old-fashioned cooking with a touch of frugality is in fashion again. As the days start to melt together, a lot more of my time is spent futzing around in the kitchen, or tending to the boys at home as if they were Tamagotchis. Their two-hourly trips to the fridge to sneak a peek at the contents are a sign of their swelling hunger. Matronly instincts aside, it is important to understand the gravity of these nourishing acts. A healthy diet is the best way to boost our immunity, giving our bodies the best chance to fight off any diseases. On top of that, cooking has been keeping me sane during this circuit breaker period—and we all know the importance of mental health in a time of disquiet.

I know that you enjoy dining out and can no longer visit your favourite restaurant or meet your friends over a cold beer. I’m in the same boat. While you can easily order chicken rice, grilled cheese sandwiches or anything that tickles your fancy and get it delivered right to your doorstep, it’s more effortful and rewarding t0 get your hands dirty in the kitchen. Plus, if you have managed to stock up on groceries, use this as an opportunity to whip up different dishes. And besides, who isn’t baking (probably sourdough) or cooking? That’s pretty much all I see on my social media feed apart from TikTok videos. Who knows, you might be part of a new wave of influencers who aren’t endorsing a brand or selling a product anymore. Instead, simple recipes consisting of basic ingredients might just be the way forward. 

Consultant chef Muhammad Imran Bin Sani, who has seen a sharp drop in business caused by the coronavirus, banded together with like-minded friends and initiated the #BudgetTenDollars challenge to share recipes of dishes below $10. “Singaporeans and people from all over the world are feeling the pain of reduced income. Furloughs and even layoffs are affecting the rhythm of our daily lives,” he says. “I hope that #BudgetTenDollars will inspire people to consider fresh home-cooked meals without spending excessively.”

After mixing plain flour, hot water and salt till it’s a pliable dough, Imran rolls the dough and cuts out circular dumpling wrappers to make gyozas. Some days, flour evolves into crispy flatbread piled high with fresh salsa, and others, it makes Lorighittas (a Sardinian braided pasta) tossed with squid and lemon. For sweet tooths, I spy chocolate drizzled crepes to get your bake on. One of the recipes I would bookmark is his pear, carrot, chicken soup; an earnest dish that hugs your stomach.

Hailing from a school of ‘influencers’ who have once benefited from tastings at the swankiest outfits, Ian Low and partner Pauline Ang have long distanced themselves from that term by turning to modest, yet healthy home cooking. During the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the duo has been documenting the step-by-step process of making chai tow kway, chwee kueh, siew mai and even red bean paste. “We are harkening back to your Ah Gong and Ah Mah’s generation where they were the original master chefs of the households,” says Low. “In the past, literally everything from sauces to kueh was made by hand at home.”

The couple is taking advantage of the circuit breaker measures to rediscover their forgotten food heritage, citing that their recipes have garnered quite a lot of international attention. “Since everyone is stuck at home and searching for cooking ideas, we want to share simple and easy-to-do recipes for many who have never cooked or possess little experience,” he says. If you head over to their Instagram feed, they provide useful kitchen hacks and use an inordinate amount of butter in their cooking.

Throughout the world, chefs and restaurants are quick to pick up on this shift—stowing away their pincers in favour of ladles, bowls and well-oiled griddles. Canlis in Seattle, for example, made an abrupt shift in 4 days from white tablecloth dining to bagels and burgers takeout. Similarly, at home, chefs who do not normally have the luxury of time with their families are thrust deep into domesticity. I watch Chef Bjorn Shen of Smalls squeeze mortadella, black forest ham, fudgy egg and laughing cow cheese between burger buns, all while donning an amusing crab helmet in his living room.

In Australia, chef and restauranteur Dan Hong’s demonstration of the Cantonese snack shrimp toast is a viral hit. Who doesn’t want to recreate the nostalgic vibes of a dim sum push cart restaurant in the comforts of their own home? On camera, his daughter Nami roasts him as he grills mini cheeseburgers for the family. It’s endearing and a far cry from the usual manicured food documentaries he usually graces. “Since the restaurant closures due to Covid-19, I have been staying at home with my wife and three children,” he says. “I see it as sort of a silver lining that I get to spend more quality time with my kids as I usually get only two days in the past.” I’ve tasted his infamous Lotus burger before and the burger purist in me puts it on a pedestal as a masterpiece. 

Intimidated by desserts? You now have the luxury of time to tackle your fears. Karim Bourgi’s Instagram feed is a baked wonderland of vanilla bean speckled tart and galette de rois shaped in elegant swirls and finished with an iridescent glaze. It’s all very intimidating. But hold up, some time last month, the executive pastry chef for the Al Mana Group in Dubai and ambassador of Elle & Vire and Valrhona Chocolate launched the #letsbakeathome movement in hopes of fostering unity through a love of sweets. He shares recipes for pecan brownies enveloped in glossy almond nib chocolate coating that beg for a dunk in cold milk, and pain au chocolat that leaves a trail of shattered pastry crumbs upon first bite.

Amid the self-isolation and fear that we have been forced to accept, one positive that has emerged is free content. And in my world that revolves around food, like so many of us, the key takeaway is to be useful. Engage, share and encourage each other. With more time on your hands, all that’s left is focus and patience. You’ve got this. 

[Read: Pantry Staples and Lockdown Cooking From Top Chefs]