• Alicent enjoys outdoor eating with her partner Maarten and their daughter Lily. (Alicent Wong)Source: Alicent Wong
As outdoor dining becomes a way of life, Alicent Wong recalls outdoor eating as a child in Singapore and now with her family in Australia.
By
Alicent Wong, Presented by
Elli Iacovou

6 Oct 2020 - 10:36 AM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2021 - 11:00 PM

As early as age five, I remember spending my weekends by the pool at Changi Beach Park in Singapore.

My aunty Lucy was a swimming club member so the whole family would get together – my parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. We would swim and cool down from the extreme heat, and then have a barbecue by the beach. It was a time of fun and family bonding.

Stir fried rice vermicelli topped with homemade chicken curry, barbecue chicken wings, and fish balls on a skewer where all part of the spread.

We lived in a house with a spacious front yard, so we hosted many family dinners and celebrations outdoors. It was a big family home where we all lived together including my grandparents, and uncle and aunties until they married.

BEST BARBECUE SNACK
Lemongrass chicken wings

These are just about the best barbecue snack you can get — a large bowl of these will get demolished in no time! This is my interpretation of a recipe by the Vietnamese wife of a guy we met at Rainbow Beach, Queensland.

Whenever there was a festivity of any kind, I remember how the women of our house would gather in the kitchen and each cook their favourite dish.

I was a part of this group and was trusted with grinding the garlic in the mortar and pestle, cutting up the veggies and other chores.

On the days of our Asian holiday celebrations and family festivities, my Buddhist grandma, Foong Har, would wake up at the crack of dawn to offer incense before prepping and cooking the meals.

"Cooking and eating has brought family and friends together in nature."

We would always expect lots of friends and family to come, so there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the kitchen as we prepared for an entire day's worth of celebrating.     

Grandma Foong Har is Cantonese by birth and she just loved cooking. She taught us how it's traditional to accompany main meals with a soup dish.

I remember how she would stock an old charcoal burner and boil huge pots of soup. My favourite was her papaya, peanuts and pork rib soup pot. It was a weird combination, but it tasted really, really good, especially in the days after. We would freeze it and it would just get better by the day.  

Our alfresco family celebrations  

During the Full Moon Festival – widely known as the Mid-Autumn Festival which falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar – my family would celebrate with a dinner complimented by steamed soy sauce chicken, roast duck and roasted pork belly. It would also feature traditional festival delicacies such as the sweet Mooncakes and pomelos, which symbolise abundance. As kids, we were allowed to stay up late to play with our lanterns in the beauty of the full Moon.

The other traditional celebration that we hosted was a baby's full-month 'birthday'.

With this celebration, we would traditionally shave the baby's head and bathe them in a tub of 'blessed water' with flowers and leaves from the temple. It also signifies that the mum is now free to go back to eating normal foods and drink after her traditional confinement period that includes a specific diet.

When my sister and cousins were born and were a month old, there was plenty of fanfare around the family preparing for this. We would also invite extended family for a meal and drinks.

THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT
How to make congee while you sleep
Congee is a breakfast food and using a slow cooker to let it bubble away overnight is the perfect way to wake up to a meal without lifting a finger.

I recall congee at this event as it's known to be nourishing for a new mother, especially because it features ginger. In many Asian cultures, it's known to promote vitality. Grandma would also honour this occasion with her winter melon, pork rib soup and her amazing shitake and mushroom stew with dry oysters and black moss, which she would slow cook the whole day over the charcoal stove.

As a traditional gift, we would offer guests red-dyed boiled eggs and little sweet cakes.

Once New Year's celebrations came around, my aunt Lucy would make her famous spring rolls. What made them stand out was how the pork mince, chestnuts, and rich variety of herbs were rolled in tofu skin. After being deep fried they were irresistibly crispy on the outside and really juicy on the inside. 

At this time of year, my dad Vincent would also enter the kitchen and make his delicious beef stir fry while my mum Alice would serve her veggie fried vermicelli and tasty curry chicken with potatoes.

A typical New Year's spread with Alicent's family.

Other New Years' dishes in Singapore included prawns in home-made tomato paste, steamed Chinese sausages with rice and a steamed snapper topped with spring onions and freshly sliced ginger.

When I turned eight, we moved from our old family house to an apartment block and eating outdoors moved from our front yard to a local restaurant, coffee shop or a local hawker centre. Our family celebrations subsequently moved to our indoor living room.  

TRY THIS SNAPPER RECIPE
Asian barbecued snapper

This is a great way to make the most of the excellent seafood we have in Australia. The aromatic coconut sauce compliments the fish so well and gives it a real South East Asian twist. If you didn’t want to use a whole fish, you could use fillets, or serve the sauce and salad with barbecued Aussie prawns.

Enjoying outdoor eating in Australia  

When I arrived in Sydney in 2004 to study, I relished and bathed in the easy-going lifestyle, the abundant wide-open spaces, and the warmth of its people so much so that I stayed.

I enjoyed camping trips with friends, evenings that ended with hours spent chatting over a nice meal cooked over a campfire and picnics at outdoor music festivals at The Domain. 

Now that I've been in Australia for over 15 years and have two daughters of my own, that quintessential Australian way of getting together for a barbecue or by the campfire is an extension of the life I lived as a child.

To make sure my two daughters embrace their Asian culture the same way I enjoyed it the most – by celebrating our customs and traditions through feasts and outdoor living – we moved to Brisbane. Now that the weather has become warmer, we've set-up an outdoor dining table in our front yard to complement our backyard dining area. 

Alicent and her family think Brisbane is conducive to outdoor eating.

Chinese New Year is something I make a point of living up even if it's just the four of us. I will make steamed fish, which symbolises prosperity, and commemorate my grandma who has since passed away by recreating her soup. She was the one who instilled my love for cooking. 

Eating outdoors during lockdown

Having something to eat in our own yard was a great stress relief during lockdown earlier this year.

Weather permitting, we would grab a bite outdoors, and I would enjoy a glass of wine with my husband in our hammock in the evening.

The pandemic restrictions really made us understand how much we take things for granted.

When we first went into lockdown, we were in despair about when we'd ever be able to get to our favourite picnic spots again.

Now, we make every moment count with our kids as we never know when we'll be required to go into lockdown again. It really is living in the moment.

Food has been such a big part of my life since I can remember. Cooking and eating has brought family and friends together in nature. This is a legacy and freedom I want my children to inherit.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac

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