"Everything's here except the fresh food," the grocery deliveryman said last Friday night.
"I don't know, but you're not the only one. Two other families are also not getting their fresh food."
I shrugged, thinking nothing of it. Another service lapse. What's new?
Later that night, I checked my Facebook feed to find a flood of disturbing images - photos of supermarkets in Singapore with shelves cleaned out. Long lines at the check-out. Pictures of shopping carts piled high with toilet paper and instant noodles. More of these were flying all over the WhatsApp chat groups of which I am part.
Then came the memes. Then came a poem. Then came the mocking.
Singaporeans are going to need hair-loss treatment because of all the instant noodles they have panic-bought and are, presumably, now eating in a panic. Sodium overload.
Singaporeans are panic-buying toilet paper because they think the coronavirus brings on more frequent bowel movements. I am using bowel movements to be polite. People put it more, well, pungently on Facebook.
I suppose I should have known the Great Panic-buying Spree Of 2020 would happen here. Especially since that Friday was when the coronavirus alert level here was raised to orange.
We would all have seen similar photos of empty supermarket shelves in Hong Kong. My sister, who works there, had also sent me such photos. She has been working from home since going back after spending the Chinese New Year holidays here.
That morning, when I texted to ask how she was holding up, she replied with this: "I got 10 rolls of toilet paper, so joyful." The poor woman had been running low.
"Haha. OMG Mei," was my response. "I can send you some."
"No need lah, 10 rolls will last me a while."
It was a surreal weekend and I found myself with one foot in Normal Life and the other in Crazyland. I could not figure out why the eggs, soya milk and garlic I had ordered did not arrive.
Meanwhile, the pictures and memes kept coming. There was a video of someone's bomb shelter packed to the brim with food.
I called my mother the next morning to ask if she had been panic-buying. She shops at Chinatown Market on Saturday mornings.
"Was it mad?"
"No, there were fewer people than usual," she said. "I just bought what I usually buy. But when I asked the pork man why he had so little meat, he said customers had bought a lot. He said..." She used a Chinese term I didn't understand.
"The walls are closing in."
At 10am that day, I walked to a wet market near where I live and stepped into Normal Life.
The market was full of people, which was normal for a weekend. More importantly, there was plenty of everything: fruit, vegetables, meat and bread.
I bought vegetables, fruit and 1kg of chicken feet.
One stall had fresh roselle and I bought some to make roselle tea. The chicken feet, leeks and carrots I put in a pot to make a collagen-rich stock. I use a lot of stock for my soupy dinners and always have tubs of it in the freezer.
When I stopped by the market again on Monday morning to see what was happening, a handful of stalls were open on what is usually a dead day for markets, selling fruit and vegetables. Again, there was plenty.
Why, I asked myself, had people panicked?
Maybe I lack the survival - and killer - instinct that is going to serve these people well when things really go awry.
Maybe I am complacent because I have no hungry mouths to feed but my own.
Maybe I am chill because my pantry and fridge are stuffed with food. It's a food writer thing - a bane ordinarily, but perhaps very reassuring in these strange times. In any case, I won't judge panic shoppers if they don't judge me.
That Monday, I decided I was just going to have both feet planted firmly in Normal Life.
I am not buying any new protein. I can jolly well finish whatever is in the freezer. No new fruit and vegetables, either - not until I have finished everything I bought that day.
As a challenge to myself, I am looking at what I have on hand to see what I can make without buying new stuff.
If you, too, are not panicking, I hope you will do the same. I am sure you will have loads of inspiration, what with all that Christmas and Chinese New Year bounty.
This week's recipe is the result of fruitful foraging.
I am calling it Keep Calm Congee and it uses stuff I already have. Japanese short-grain rice, the only kind I have on hand, makes terrific congee - something I found out when cooking for my family during the Chinese New Year break.
I soak it overnight, then cook it for two hours and the grains break down to make a smooth rice gruel. This will work with jasmine rice too, of course. Long soaking is key.
From my freezer, I dig out a packet of minced beef, which I marinate with condiments I have on hand. Use pork or chicken if you don't have beef. Even thinly sliced pork and beef, the kind used for hot pot meals, can be added to the congee just before serving.
Some friends gave me century eggs from Hong Kong, which are delicious added to congee. Or crack a couple of raw eggs into bowls of piping hot porridge for extra protein.
I don't have scallions but unearth a jar of furikake - Japanese seaweed and sesame topping for rice. It works very well as a garnish.
That weekend, I also made 24 giant chocolate chip cookies for friends, using stuff I had on hand. The eggs that never arrived were to have been for the cookies, but I had just enough in the fridge, with a couple left over to make ramen eggs.
Next, I am eyeing two jars of olives, some charcuterie, cheese, tins of Spanish and Portuguese seafood, and crackers.
Perhaps I will make a pitcher of dirty martinis and invite my friends over for drinks and nibbles.
I will keep calm and carry on. I hope you will too.
KEEP CALM CONGEE
- 300g short-or long-grain rice
- 500g minced beef, pork or chicken
- 1 Tbs light soya sauce
- 1 Tbs sesame oil
- 2 tsp Shaoxing wine (optional)
- Ground white pepper
- 2 tsp salt
- 41/2 litres water
- 4 raw eggs or 4 century eggs
- Furikake, chopped scallions or fresh coriander sprigs
1. The night before you plan to cook the congee, wash the rice under a tap until the water runs clear. Place in a large mixing bowl, cover with 2 to 3 litres of water and leave overnight to soak.
2. Also the night before, marinate the meat. Massage the light soya sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine (if using) and white pepper into it, place in a covered container and refrigerate until ready to cook.
3. Drain the rice and pour into a large pot. Discard the soaking water. Add the salt and the 41/2 litres of water to the pot. Bring to a boil, let it boil for 5 minutes, then lower heat to medium or medium low and simmer for 2 hours, or until smooth.
4. If using century eggs, peel, then slice or dice them. Set aside.
5. Take the meat out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before the congee is ready. When the 2 hours are up, turn the heat up to high, add the meat and stir until well-distributed and cooked. Taste and add salt if needed.
6. Ladle out into four bowls. If using raw eggs, crack one egg into each bowl, top with furikake, scallions or coriander, and serve immediately. If using century eggs, divide the chopped egg among the bowls, add scallions or coriander and serve.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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