Curry & Me
Curry Devil Cooking Competition
Nervous laughter rang around the kitchen countertop as three judges looked on with a blank face at the plate presented to them. At its centre was a bowl of Curry Devil, with a fistful of rice next to it. Lettuce, cucumber, and chilli trimmed the circumference of the plate – garnish. My teammate had etched what looked like an outline of the devil’s face onto a slice of cucumber. Cute.
The judges finally took a bite each. “Is it edible?” I asked breathlessly. Someone giggled.
One of the judge’s impassive face finally broke into a smile: “I wouldn’t taste it if it were uncooked.” Laughter broke out, the tension eased, we were all relieved – at least you can eat what we cook!
At the face of it, we were at a cooking competition. The event name said as much: “Curry & Me Cooking Competition - Curry Devil”. But that was just a means to a deeper end; it was to promote greater understanding between Singaporeans and migrants. Like the six other teams we were competing against, there was a Singaporean, a migrant worker, an employment pass or work pass holder, and Permanent Resident in our team of four.
Organised by The Whitehatters and ItsRainingRaincoats with The Eurasian Association as partners, the integration initiative was also supported by the National Integration Council and Singapore Kindness Movement.
They were responding to a pressing need for greater social cohesion among all residents in Singapore, regardless of their visa status. For a few years now, there have been concerns about the rise of xenophobia and anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore*. Immigration issues even made it to the campaign manifesto of political parties like Singfirst (Singapore First) in the 2015 General Elections**.
More recently, higher spread of Covid-19 infections among migrant workers here caught everyone’s attention. After all, such workers constituted more than 90 percent of the 58,000 Covid-19 infected cases in Singapore by December last year***. Many Singaporeans
even resorted to racist and xenophobic explanations for the overwhelmingly disproportionate spread of the virus. For example, it was alleged that the supposed inherent unhygienic practices and cultures of foreigners were responsible for the virus spread.
There were expressions of anti-foreigner sentiments as well. Never mind that these workers are crucial to Singapore’s economic survival. In fact, research shows that hard evidence of migrant contributions to the country has little effect on anti-immigrant sentiments amongst citizens****.
A softer approach is needed to address xenophobia.
Which was how I found my myself at a cooking competition in ToTT at Century Square, a shopping mall in the heartlands. As I found out that Sunday, March 28, cooking together is a sufficiently complex task that pushes people to work together. Given that we only had an hour and half to cook the chicken, the time pressure left us no room to erect barriers.
The clock started soon after we introduced ourselves to our teammates. We froze.
Rubel, 34, a Bangladeshi migrant worker from the construction industry broke the ice. He was the only one in our team who cooked regularly. In fact, I later found out he enjoyed cooking as a hobby. He quickly but gently took charge. A peek at the recipe and he was swiftly guiding us on how to marinate the chicken, how to use the blender and so on. I suspect the rest of us were simply relieved that at least someone in our team knew what to do.
My teammate, Shir Lee, a 32 year-old Singaporean Chinese who worked in the telecommunications sector later shared with me how significant that moment was for her.
“Rubel is not shy to step up and take the lead,” she said. Migrant workers taking the initiative to “step in as a team leader, is a side most Singaporeans don’t see”. In our interactions with migrant workers, “usually people (Singaporeans) think of charity” and expect them to be grateful to receive it. It’s a fundamentally unequal relationship, she reflected.
Her words resonated with me. For a few months, I had worked at a temporary dormitory that housed foreign workers in safe zones while their permanent lodging was being cleansed of the virus. For all my close interactions, from taking care of their daily needs to
addressing the many problems that arose, I realised my colleagues and I never quite saw migrant workers as one of us. It’s particularly embarrassing for me given that I was born in Bangladesh, and am fluent in the Bengali language.
Yet, for all the months I spent at my former workplace, the depth of my interaction back then fell short of the humanising experience I had within a few short hours at a cooking competition!
I’m still not sure why that is so. Maybe it had to do with the many little tasks we needed to do. From chopping, cutting and slicing ingredients to measuring spices, we were forced us to trust each other. The need for constant communication made it personal. We were conversing rapidly. In any other event, most of us might have felt awkward. In fact, it was fun!
While cooking, we got to know more about each other. For example, Asha, a Singaporean Indian lady in another team, did not know that many migrant workers have informal volunteer groups to help each other. She only found out because her teammate, Saiful Islam, was a volunteer in one such group. “It was not just external parties but also they were helping themselves,” said Asha. She sounded a little surprised and thoughtful. I understood what she meant though; many of us in Singapore assume that migrant workers needed to be led and guided.
Other teams in the competition formed even deeper bonds. Jamil, a 27 year-old Bangladeshi who works as a Civil Engineer, hit it off well with his multi-racial team. It was his first meaningful interaction outside work since he arrived in Singapore only a few months before the pandemic hit. He had little to no opportunity to make friends due to circuit breakers. “I really enjoyed the whole programme,” he said.
Everyone was “very friendly” and “even with the locals it didn’t feel like (it was our) first meeting”. His team set up a WhatsApp group chat with plans to meet if possible. Jamil, a Muslim, said he intends to invite his team over for Hari Raya celebrations if there are no movement restrictions.
For some of us, it was an eye-opening experience which humanised migrant workers in Singapore.
Like me, Shir Lee had previously met migrant workers, but in her capacity as a volunteer during the early days of the pandemic, when she coordinated logistics to provide much needed supplies to dormitories. The cooking competition was the first time she stood side
by side in a more casual setting as “equals” and “friends”, not beneficiaries, she said. That’s “definitely something” to remember, she added.
Rubel felt the same way. I had asked him how he felt about the event and he replied, in Bengali, that he was “very pleased” because the difference in treatment of migrant workers at work and at the event was like the gap between the “sky and the earth”. He has been working in Singapore since 2012. At work, said Rubel, most Singaporeans are “usually rude and very task oriented and condescending. So we can have a bad impression of Singaporeans but the love and friendliness of (Singaporeans at) events like this is an important corrective and remedy to that negative impression. I’m very pleased about that.”
Jasim, a 32 year-old Bangladeshi who works as a workplace safety supervisor, echoed similar sentiments. Before the event, he had briefly wondered if Singaporeans would look past his race and see him as a “human being (to be) treated similarly no matter who am I and where come from,” he said in English. His teammates “definitely” treated him well. Jasim was particularly touched by “lovely sister Ms Aniza”, who encouraged him to speak up and represent the team on stage. “I was surprised,” he said.
There were other surprises too. For instance, going by the collective “ahhhhh” that rose around the room, no one knew that Curry Devil was a misnomer. The chef and head judge said that the actual name of the Eurasian dish is “Curry Debal”. Debal is the Kristang term for leftovers. Kristang is a creole language spoken by a segment of the Eurasian community who are descendants of the Portuguese and Malay mixed families. Traditionally, Curry Debal is served after Christmas, cooked with the leftovers from the day of festivities. As it’s a rather spicy dish which set tongues burning, it became known as Devil’s Curry or Curry Devil by many Singaporeans. The name stuck in the popular imagination to this day.
Personally, I found that bit of trivia to be an appropriate metaphor. We often base our stereotypes on what we think are facts - the curry is spicy hence must be named devil’s curry - but is a misunderstanding on our part. Similarly, there is much we assume to be true about our foreign counterparts in Singapore but are actually misunderstandings.
Going by the various points of reflection by many of us after the event, there is much to be done in building social cohesion in these difficult times. However, events like this cooking competition are an organic way to build bonds and strengthen relationships. Like Ms Shahrany Hassan, founder of The White Hatters, said: “The issue is a lack of trust and mutual understanding. The best way forward is to increase meaningful, human interactions between foreigners and locals.”