Tasty Supper Club stories

Tasty Supper Club stories

Like many homesick Singaporeans living overseas, Lee Guo Sun turned to cooking local food just for a taste of home.

The private equity funds lawyer, 33, was then studying law at the University College London and craved everything from bak kut teh to laksa.

Lee, better known as Goz to his friends, says: "I have no amazing story of learning to cook dishes such as ayam buah keluak under the tutelage of my mother or grandmother. It was just me being in London and realising that, s***, I miss local food."

He started cooking for himself from recipes he found online and later adapted and tweaked them based on input from friends and family.

Then he and his other Singaporean friends started to hold pot-luck dinners once a fortnight, for which he would prepare dishes such as Teochew-style braised duck, roast pork belly and chicken rice.

Mr Lee, the elder of two children of a retired director of a telecommunications company and a housewife, is the founder of Plusixfive (the Singapore international dialling code), a now-defunct London-based Singaporean supper club. He ran it out of his 499 sq ft apartment in Islington. Its first session was held in March 2011 and the last dinner was late last year.

A supper club is typically a dinner party with strangers, held in a person's home. These clubs were all the rage in 2009 and 2010, in cities such as New York and London, and later Berlin.

Lee and his friends recently released a 250-page cookbook entitled Plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook, which centres on the ethos of the supper club - a mix of people from different backgrounds, bonding over food.

The book, which is published by Epigram Books, features recipes, each with a story behind it, as well as other anecdotes, thoughts and memories. It has a chapter for those who want to start their own supper clubs.

The book took a year to put together and is priced at $48.04. It is available at leading bookstores here, including Books Kinokuniya, and bookshops in London such as Waterstones.

Lee, who is engaged to hotel valuer Phoebe Teo, 36, recalls how a friend had dragged him, "kicking and screaming", to his first supper club experience in November 2010.

He says: "I thought to myself, 'Why am I paying to eat at someone's house?'"

But it turned out to be good fun and he met some interesting people.

On the impetus to start a Singaporean supper club, Lee, who relocated to Hong Kong in September last year, says: "All we Singaporeans do is eat, talk about eating and plan our next meal even before we have finished the current one. And I just thought that it was nuts that no one knew what Singaporean food was."

The Plusixfive supper club started with 10 people and slowly grew to a party of 19, which was the maximum number that could fit in his living room. He hosted the supper club monthly, then fortnightly, and charged £35 (S$70) a head, which was the market rate there, he says.

A meal at Plusixfive would usually include eight or nine dishes. There might be starters of keropok and belinjau crackers with sambal, pork belly satay and kueh pie tee served in pie tee shells made from scratch, followed by dishes such as laksa, and main courses of braised duck and Peranakan-style chap chye or stewed mixed vegetables. Then there would be desserts of homemade kueh and ice kacang, for example.

He would start preparing for the dinner on Friday night after work, and throughout Saturday and Sunday, to be ready in time for the supper club, which met on Sunday nights.

"I think the reason supper clubs were so popular then had something to do with the recession", says Lee, referring to the global financial crisis that began in 2008. "People were looking for something different and were perhaps bored of eating at high-end establishments and wanted something more personal."

After running the supper club on his own for about a year, he started roping in friends to help cook and serve.

The dishes would be served with side stories of what the food meant to them or the nostalgia or philosophy behind them.

He says: "Food isn't just about taste, it's experiential. If you know where I had my first chwee kueh or what sardine puffs remind me of, it adds to the experience."

The idea for the book, he says, was prompted by a confluence of factors. For one thing, the fact that his company was relocating him to Hong Kong meant the inevitable end of the supper club, but he wanted it to live on.

He was also saddened to find out that many hawkers no longer make food from scratch, but instead purchase ready-made items from suppliers.

Factory production, coupled with much talk in Singapore newspapers about the waning hawker trade, made him want to document the supper club's recipes and journey.

He says: "It was sad - it seemed as if no one knew how to make things anymore. Since we can't preserve the dishes or the hawkers, then the next best thing would be to preserve the recipes, so that others would at least have an inkling of how the dishes are made."

The book showcases a mixture of South-east Asian and other recipes, and is loud and unconventional.

There are doodles, intentional splotches and food that is styled in a way that may look tasty to Singaporeans, but is not all that pretty.

It was designed by Central Saint Martins graphic design graduate Shu Han Lee, 23.

They sent eight spreads of the book's layout and design to 10 publishers in London, but none replied.

Epigram Books decided to publish it.

Its founder and chief executive Edmund Wee, 61, says: "We knew the book would be different the moment we read the manuscript. It wouldn't be like a normal cookbook or a celebrity cookbook because it wouldn't just have recipes, but also stories which captured the author's personality."

He adds that an international publisher, whom he met at the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, has already "expressed great interest" in buying the rights to publish the book overseas.

Lee says he wants the cookbook to close a gap in the market. He thinks there is space for new-age, hip Asian cookbooks alongside ones by celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. He hopes that it will also appeal to cooks and non-cooks, and to younger people who may not view Asian food as cool.

"I'm not a trained chef and I do not profess to be the best cook. But I think anyone can cook - if you can boil water, you can boil stock," he says.


Plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook, priced at $48.04, is available at leading bookstores such as Books Kinokuniya.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

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