Breaking bread: a family feast in among Singapore's skyscrapers

Among Singapore’s skyscrapers, the Soh family’s colourful, low-rise home has the feel of a traditional kampong (village), with fresh fish, fruit and veg prepared in a kitchen that’s open to the elements.

Lunch at Mamma Soh's is accompanied by a post-meal family singing session. 

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak
By Jess Vincent
Published 15 Jan 2023, 09:00 GMT

A flash of red and grey feathers. The pungent smell of durian fruit. I crane my neck, raising myself up onto my tiptoes to see what everyone’s crowding around. There’s a blue bird cage mounted on a wheeled walking frame, sunflower seeds scattering at our feet. A woman, perhaps in her early seventies, is taking her pet parrot shopping. 

I’ve come to Bedok — one of Singapore’s oldest residential neighbourhoods, in the east of the city — to meet three generations of the Soh family, who have called this area home for almost eight decades. They’ve brought me to 58 Bedok Market, a low-rise, red-and-white-tiled building stocking everything from fish balls to toilet bleach. We’re here to pick up seafood and spices for lunch at their home and cooking school, One Kind House. The matriarch — a petite woman with pink lipstick, pencilled eyebrows and long, midnight-blue nails, who introduces herself simply as ‘Mamma Soh’ — soon tires of looking at the parrot and sets off towards the fish counters. Mamma Soh will be celebrating her 80th birthday next year, but I struggle to keep up as she makes a beeline past the piles of squid and cuttlefish the size of my forearm, towards the golden pomfrets: plump, silver fish with sunflower-yellow fins.

“Their meat is fleshy and perfect for frying,” says Mamma Soh, without breaking her step on the slick, tiled floor. 

She greets the fishmonger at the pomfret counter like an old friend, asking how his mother is and laughing at his gut-splattered apron in a mix of English and Hokkien, a local language. Mamma Soh’s son Calvin, daughter-in-law Arlette and granddaughter Ava have gathered around now as we garner the attention of neighbouring sellers. Mamma Soh is a diminutive woman — perhaps just over four feet tall — but she has real presence. “My mum was a primary school teacher in this neighbourhood,” explains Calvin. “She taught most of the people here, so she’s something of a local celebrity.” 

Bushels of fragrant, hanging herbs drape the stalls that line Singapore's colourful markets.

Bushels of fragrant, hanging herbs drape the stalls that line Singapore's colourful markets.

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak

Two golden pomfrets are gutted and slung in a bag. Mamma Soh wanders off to another stand selling crabs the size of dinner plates and whitebait so fine and pale they look like beansprouts. She takes a closer look at a box of grey and pink prawns. She’s cooking a prawn and passionfruit dish this afternoon — a staple of hers, which, she tells me, requires the freshest ingredients. Calvin is in charge of the clams with fermented soybeans, and he soon appears in order to inspect the shellfish on offer. Once she’s had the nod from mother and son, the woman behind the counter piles a bucket-load of seafood into a bag. 

Moving through the market at Mamma Soh’s lightning-fast pace, the family say their hellos to sellers left and right. We pass a stand where yellowtail fish balls are made using the age-old method of mixing minced fish in wooden vats by hand. In the vegetable aisle, Mamma Soh buys lemongrass that comes up to her waist, along with her favourite blue ginger — a sharper, more citrussy version of the regular root. Then she pauses for the first time that morning. “That’s everything,” she announces. “We should stop for breakfast.” 

I follow the Sohs to an aisle flanked by dozens of hawker stands, positioned under blinding white strip lights. Bao buns, soft and white like clouds, are cooking in bamboo steamers stacked almost to the ceiling. Sticky barbecue pork bubbles in silver saucepans large enough to bathe in, while chillies and spring onions are thrown into the air with paper-thin noodles. We pick a stall and order some fried bread with sesame seeds, which we dip into cool soy milk. 

“Breakfast is the largest meal of the day in Singapore,” says Ava, Calvin’s youngest teenager, tucking into noodles with chilli and black vinegar. She’s not joking: next on the menu are water chestnut dumplings, some sticky glutinous rice with barbecue pork, and a fish-ball soup with spring onion and coriander.

Mamma Soh's garden is full of fresh ingredients: there are chillies and turmeric, ginger, coriander and ...

Mamma Soh's garden is full of fresh ingredients: there are chillies and turmeric, ginger, coriander and limes.

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak

Living off the land and sea

Shopping bags and bellies full, we head over to the Sohs’ home in west Bedok. A former fishing village, which once had direct access to the sea before the land was reclaimed for urbanisation, it’s now one of Singapore’s most densely populated neighbourhoods — trucks ply the multilane highways; four-storey shopping malls house designer shops and hawker centres; families zip-line over pruned parks and man-made reservoirs. All around, impossibly high apartment blocks reach for the sky like sunflowers of glass and metal.

Between the skyscrapers is a tin-roofed house painted in turquoise. There’s a front garden with herbs in chest-high terracotta planters and a large red plaque that reads ‘One Kind House’ above the steel doors. I follow the family into their home, where Chinese lanterns, modern art and green plants hang from the exposed white brick walls, and there’s an unobstructed view of the kitchen and back garden from the front door. The hallway is cool and light, thanks to a large air well in the ceiling. 

“This is a typical Southeast Asian house,” says Calvin, as we pass a vintage typewriter and a large ceramic frog. “The tin roof, the air well, the gardens — this is what a traditional kampong house would have looked like.”

Before the skyscrapers, Singapore was made up of hundreds of kampongs. Meaning ‘village’ in Malay, kampongs are farming communities that live off the land and sea. But as Singapore transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the 1980s, practically all the kampongs, along with many of the fruit trees and plants that sustained life for centuries here, were demolished to make way for urban development. Many of those living in Singapore’s rural villages in the 1980s were moved to apartment blocks subsidised by the government. Today, more than 80% of Singaporeans live in government housing, and only one kampong — Lorong Buangkok, in the north of Singapore — survives.

Sharp citrus, and earthy aromatics like garlic and shallots, make up the base flavours of many ...

Sharp citrus, and earthy aromatics like garlic and shallots, make up the base flavours of many of Singapore's signature dishes. 

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak

“When I lived here with my parents, there were chickens and ducks running around the streets,” says Mamma Soh, whose mother and father bought the house in 1969. “Everyone would grow food and cook together.”

As one of the few families in Singapore still living in a landed house, the Sohs wanted to keep the spirit of the kampongs alive. In 2012, Calvin quit his job in advertising and began to design a kampong home fit for the 21st century. The kitchen, dining area and adjoining garden were redesigned as a central living space, and an upstairs bedroom was turned into a research and development lab. Here, Ava launched her own jewellery line for a women’s empowerment project. Dylan, her older brother, used the space to design One Kind Block, a hydroponic plant-growing system he hopes will help Singaporeans living in government housing to grow their own food. In 2016, the last piece of the puzzle — to teach others about kampong living — came together when the family hosted their first cooking class.

“The spirit of kampong is togetherness,” says Calvin, who moved into the house with his mother in 1985 after a stint in government housing. “Modern society tells us to move old people to nursing homes, but I wanted to find a way to give my mother purpose and for my kids to learn about where they come from and who they want to be.”

Mamma Soh takes me to the back garden to pick chillies and turmeric for lunch. The small patch of land is wilder than the front garden, with coriander, ginger, limes and papayas all fighting for space. “Everyone’s garden looked like this once,” says Mamma Soh, who, as the eldest of 12 children, would help plant and harvest food from this garden as a child. “Now they all look like that,” she says, pointing disapprovingly at the plastic turf next door.

Passing on recipes between family and friends cultivates the sense of community central to Singapore's kampongs. ...

Passing on recipes between family and friends cultivates the sense of community central to Singapore's kampongs. 

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak

Community cooking

Back in the house, it’s all hands on deck, chopping garlic, ginger, chilli and shallots. The kitchen and dining room, open to the elements with no door separating it from the back garden, feels industrial in scale: there’s a triple-height ceiling with a fan the size of a plane propellor, a marble and stainless-steel worktop big enough to sleep on, and a 10ft-long wooden table. “This is the heart of the house,” says Calvin. “Food gives people the time and space to share their ideas and listen to others. That’s the essence of a 21st-century kampong.”

Dylan has arrived in time to make a pesto with kedondong leaves, also known as buah long long or ambarella, from the garden. While Arlette and Calvin catch up with their eldest child, I ask Mamma Soh who taught her to cook. “My mother,” she says, rubbing turmeric, salt and pepper on the pomfret. “Well, she didn’t teach me. I watched and learned — fast.” She slaps the fish and laughs, before shallow-frying it over a high heat.
“My grandmother’s food was simple, but tasty and filling — it was a style of cooking that could feed 14 people,” Calvin adds, tying an apron around his waist.

“I find it hard to define Singaporean cuisine because it has so many influences and is always changing.” He pauses. “Take what we’re eating today. You could say it’s Peranakan cuisine because it has Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian influences. But we’re always adding our own spin to the recipes. I guess that’s what characterises Singaporean cooking — it’s always changing.”

“Why is my son wearing an apron? He’s not cooking anything!” Mamma Soh interrupts from the hob, pouring glugs of oil into a charred wok. She adds prawns coated in cornflour, soy sauce and passionfruit juice and seeds, making the oil sizzle and the flames dance. I ask if there’s an official name for the dish. “It’s just prawns and passionfruit,” says Mamma Soh, without taking her eyes off the wok. “My own recipe.”

“You won’t find these dishes in any restaurant in Singapore,” says Arlette, motioning for me to sit at the table. “This food has been handed down through generations of kampong residents. It’s community cooking.”

Feasts are meant for sharing in Singapore – this one includes fish fried in kedondong pesto, ...

Feasts are meant for sharing in Singapore – this one includes fish fried in kedondong pesto, stir-fried clams with curry leaves and prawns dressed in passionfruit. 

Photograph by Lauryn Ishak

A couple of minutes later and the prawns are ready. Calvin takes over the stove to cook clams with garlic, shallots, ginger and fermented soybeans. “Mum and I always cook separate dishes,” he explains. “We’ve got our own way of doing things.”

“Yes, my way is faster,” says Mamma Soh, adding fresh red chillies and Dylan’s pesto to the pomfret before frying the whitebait with salt and curry leaves. The kitchen fills with laughter and the hiss of sizzling oil. But suddenly, there’s a more sinister sound. A low grumble, like the sound of a broken lawnmower, surges outside. A blanket of thick white smoke spreads across the garden and into the house. “They’re fumigating the mosquitoes,” says Dylan, rolling his eyes. “And in the process, killing all the bees and every other insect in Singapore,” adds Calvin. “That’s urbanisation for you — we’re always fighting against nature.”

The fumigation finally stops and we sit at the table, where the seafood dishes, along with blue pea rice and prawn crackers, are laid out on banana leaves. I help myself to the clams and crispy whitebait, getting an instant salty punch from the fermented soybean paste. The prawns are plump and tangy, the sweetness of the passionfruit and saltiness of the soy sauce complementing each other beautifully. The pomfret, crispy on the outside and flaky in the middle, is slightly bitter from the turmeric, and there are hints of pepper, while the fresh chillies and kedondong pesto add just enough heat and citrus notes.

We finish the meal with mango and pineapple dipped in a spicy green powder of kaffir lime, basil, mint, chilli and salt. Dylan, who’s a John Lennon fan, plays Imagine on his guitar. Mamma Soh, who somehow still has the energy to dance, is spun in a circle by her granddaughter, Ava. Arlette and Calvin sing along, swaying slowly in their chairs. At that moment, something Calvin had said earlier comes to mind: “Food brings people together in a way that nothing else can. Around the dinner table, you arrive as strangers and leave as friends.”  

How to do it:

Qantas and Singapore Airlines operate direct flights from Heathrow to Singapore. The Warehouse Hotel has doubles from S$345 (£198), room only. Cooking classes with the Soh family start at £96 per person and can be booked via Airbnb as part of the site’s cooking collection.

Published in Issue 18 (Winter 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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