Local food cravings while in a foreign land
Illustration by Ra Krishnan
You don’t usually crave Nasi Lemak in Singapore where it’s easily accessible. But for the strangest reason, you have sudden, intense cravings for it when you’re overseas - whether for a holiday, a student exchange programme, or work trip. Sounds familiar? We’ll uncover the mystery right here:
1. Your taste preferences are set at a very young age
What we eat as children shape our tastes and stick with us for life. Chances are, you grew up eating Laksa, Roti Prata, Chicken Rice and the like - and no matter where in the world you find yourself at as an adult, you’ll find yourself yearning for familiar flavours of home.
But here’s the thing: it needn’t necessarily be local food - anything that matches your childhood taste preferences will satisfy your food cravings.
So the next time you’re overseas and find yourself craving unavailable Singaporean delights, head over to the nearest McDonald’s and order what you used to have there as a kid. Chances are, your crazy cravings will be settled - well, at least for a day.
2. Food overseas has a completely different taste palette from ours
Some say food is art, and just like every painting, food follows a “palette” too. Local food tends to revolve around the same taste palette, flavored by oyster sauce, sambal and other Straits spices that aren’t commonly used in other parts of the world.
The taste palette of food overseas doesn’t usually match ours, leading to severe local food cravings - which is probably why you’d be willing to pay $15 for a sub-par plate of “Singapore Noodles” (whatever that means) in some European Chinatown - because even though it doesn’t taste as awesome as Bedok’s Hill Street Char Kway Teow, its overall taste palette is similar.
3. You’re yearning for the memories and feelings formed over local food
Newsflash: food doesn’t just fill your stomach; it also fills your brain with memories! Your tastebuds are connected to parts of your brain that process emotions and memories, so your food carries more meaning than taste alone.
So when you think you’re missing the taste of Singaporean food, the root cause might in fact be the memories and emotions you’ve enjoyed over those meals instead.
From zi char with friends to lazy weekend family breakfasts, one of the ways we bond is through food. Our brains thus associate memories of our relationships with the taste of local food.
In a foreign country, it’s natural to want a sense of belonging. This gets translated into cravings for kaya toast and salted egg chicken that subconsciously remind you of loved ones in the +65.
4. Local food affirms your national identity
When overseas for extended periods of time, people tend to be extremely self-conscious about being foreigners. Chances are, you’ll be seeking affirmation of your national identity - that you do belong somewhere. That’s probably why Hokkien Mee, Laksa, and Rojak are likely to be some of the dishes you miss the most when overseas.
5. The grass is always greener on the other side
Let’s face it: humans are innately greedy and we always want what we can’t have. Above all the biological, social and idiosyncratic explanations, a huge reason why we miss local food the most while overseas is probably because that’s exactly when we can’t have it.
You’re not alone - everyone craves a piece of home
The funniest thing is that when I finally returned to Singapore after my 5-month student exchange Down Under, I was able to strike off my local food cravings one item at a time. But now with my kopi in hand each morning, I often recall the aroma of the Flat White in Aussie, wishing I was back there leading a carefree life.
We only tend to appreciate things when we no longer have them - so here’s a reminder to cherish our unique Singaporean delicacies, our loved ones, and our wonderful memories built on this sunny island.