Cultural Feast

Social enterprise Food Playground introduces foreign guests to Singapore’s culinary tradition through cooking classes conducted by stay-at-home mothers and seniors.

BY CORINNE KERK
PHOTOS FOOD PLAYGROUND

Food Playgroundʼs cooking classes are conducted in a fun and informal setting.

J

oining a cooking class is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one visits a new city.

Yet, at Singapore social enterprise Food Playground, tourists are, literally and figuratively, getting a taste of multicultural Singapore through its food.

Started in 2012 by Daniel Tan, who spent over a decade in the travel and hospitality industry, Food Playground offers cooking classes to help participants better appreciate Singapore’s food heritage and traditions, including how the cuisines of its different ethnic groups blend together to form its food culture. It also runs team-building cooking programmes for companies, educational institutions and government agencies.

“I thought I knew a bit about Singapore food before I went to the class, but I was surprised to learn a lot more about the food and culture, and a little history…I have great affection for your country and the locals, so this only deepens this affection.”

Tania Boylen, Food Playground participant

About 40 per cent of its annual average of 4,000 cooking class participants are tourists who find out about it via the Internet. The rest are local expatriates and corporate clients on team-building exercises.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Six mornings a week, Food Playground runs its signature Cultural Cooking Class out of a conservation shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown. The three-hour class starts with a 30-minute introduction to the historical and cultural background of Singapore and its food, after which participants learn how to make three or four local dishes from scratch.

To date, Food Playground has hosted participants from over 60 countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, cooking dishes such as laksa (spicy noodle soup), Hainanese chicken rice and satay (grilled meat skewers). Beyond imparting culinary skills, Food Playground’s Singaporean instructors also share personal stories and littleknown facts about the country.

Australian Tania Boylen, a participant, says that she learnt how Singapore’s culturally diverse cuisine is influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian elements. She adds: “I thought I knew a bit about Singapore food before I went to the class, but I was surprised to learn a lot more about the food and culture, and a little history.

“As to how it affected my perspective, I have great affection for your country and the locals, so this only deepens this affection.”

Another participant, American Hector Valdes, adds: ”We did a city tour and saw a lot of sights, but I think in three hours at Food Playground, we got more of a feel of the local culture than we did in 10 hours in the heat.”

Claire Jessiman, who is from the United Kingdom and runs a food blog (www.foodiequine.co.uk), says: “The cooking class really opened my eyes to the whole food culture of Singapore…

It was the perfect introduction to the cuisine at the start of my stay, and gave me some fantastic pointers as to where and what to eat during my time in Singapore.”

To ensure an intimate learning and bonding experience, the class size is kept to 12 participants per class. This means a lot of opportunities for them to interact and share experiences. Says Tan: “Conversation topics can evolve from cooking methods and ingredients to eating habits, lifestyle, bread-and-butter issues and even politics!”

Food Playground also provides flexi-work employment opportunities for stay-at-home mothers and active seniors with limited means to return to the workforce. It currently employs six stay-at-home mothers and active seniors as cooking instructors, and two seniors as kitchen helpers and cleaners.

Participants learning to make spring rolls.

For instructors, being part of Food Playground helps them regain their self-esteem and confidence. Tan says they have much to offer in terms of local knowledge and culinary passion. “Unlike trained chefs who tend to focus on cooking techniques using a more instructional and formal teaching style, these women are very good listeners and storytellers, so they are able to forge close emotional connections and deliver more immersive learning experiences to the participants,” he adds.

Now that Food Playground has found success in its social mission, it is ready to widen its horizons. Says Tan: “We plan to expand our services by launching two new food trail experiences that will create as many as 10 new flexi-work jobs specifically for stay-at-home mums and active seniors here in the next three years.”


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