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Discovering Stories Behind New Dishes

A delicious meal with good company is one of my favourite moments in life. Growing up in South East Asia, I was fortunate to have been introduced to a wide variety of cuisines, notably Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western. Later, as I explore the larger world around me, discovering new cuisines have become part of my “Savoir Vivre” pursuit.

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When new acquaintances meet me over a meal, they often ask which cuisine I enjoy best and what I usually cook at home. The questions seem simple, but the answer can be complex because food tells many things about a person’s culture. Different people from different parts of the world eat different types of food, and traditional dishes hold the history of how a person, family and community shape a culture.

For me, I toggle between French and Chinese cooking at home. But I have an “always happy to have” meal list, with many dishes I love from places I’ve lived and visited. Like every traveller who moves from one country to another, I often find a dish cooked in different countries tastes slightly different from its original version. Instead of questioning its authenticity, hidden behind the dish can be the migration story of a community, where ingredients in the new country replaced the missing ones from its homeland. Food fills our stomachs and bonds our hearts. Enjoying the stories behind the dishes can be part of the fun when dining, and many long-lasting friendships form around a meal when stories are shared.

Let me share one of my “always happy to have” meals with you: “Poule au Pot,” a traditional dish made famous by King Henri IV of France in the 17th century. It has a noble tale – After decades of religious war, the king, in his attempt to address the famine, proclaimed, “If God grants me life, I will see that every labouring man in my Kingdom shall have his chicken to put in the pot (for their Sunday meal).” Yes, the Good King Henri did bring peace and relative prosperity to his country, and the “Poule au Pot” or “Hen to the Pot” became a French national dish many households love. And, if any historians were at your table, this story could soon lead to the enthralling tale of the real “War of Thrones” in Europe.

So, the next time you dine with your foreign friends, be it a social or a business meal, other than taking the opportunity to taste the food from their countries, perhaps you want to ask about the origins of the food. You can also do so with the owner or the service staff of the restaurant. It is an easy ice-breaker, and you may strike a good conversation as you nourish your curious mind with some cultural discoveries.

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