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Sambal & Memories

Sambal is a multifaceted condiment that is often the bedrock of a good Singaporean dish. Barbeque stingray, nasi lemak, chilli crab, lontong, mee siam, and rojak are not the same without sambal.

While ready-made sambal can be easily bought from stores, hawkers and home cooks continue producing from scratch what they believe to be the best flavours for the dishes they cook. Their sambal, often passed down from one generation to the next, is laden with memories.

The Sambal Exchange kickstarts a community swap based on these memories. Just as how we give friends, families or colleagues gifts of food wrapped with our memories—“I have been using this brand of curry powder since my grandmother’s time. I promise you it’s the best. You try!”—this project enables a gesture amongst strangers to foster a patchwork of memories across communities.

The Exchange

Aida reads Rose's memories out loud for her sisters and mother.

Six participants of different cultures, ages and genders were paired up for an exchange of their sambal. A hand-written note from the giver, relating his or her memories about the ingredient or recipe, accompanied the condiment. Some of them even reinterpreted the sambal they received and prepared dishes with it.

As the modern industrialisation spurs food producers to become consumers, and people’s relationship with food begins and ends as a retail transaction, such exchange suggests a different food economy; it encourages food to be seen as memories that can be exchanged on equal and unassuming terms.

Contribute Your Sambal

This website needs more sambal and memories. Get in touch if you have one to contribute! 

Write to me: sheere[at]inplainwords.sg

About me
Sheere Ng is a food writer and researcher with an interest in the intersections of food, immigration, and identity.

She has been published in The Straits Times, The Business Times, Yahoo Singapore and The Boston Globe. You can read her articles on her blog.

Since attaining a MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University in December 2014, she has worked with food-related cultural and private institutions in New York City. She was a researcher for the Museum of Food and Drink and a stagiaire at Fung Tu, a Chinese American restaurant in Manhattan.

She now runs a writing studio, In Plain Words, with Justin Zhuang.