When the first edition of the movement control order (MCO) kicked off in March last year, millions of Malaysians were housebound for weeks on end with little external stimulation. Which is why – unsurprisingly – people turned to cooking and baking with a vengeance.
Very quickly, home kitchens transformed into culinary havens, from whence all sorts of adventurous, innovative meals emerged. There were no limits to what the imagination could produce and a whole new breed of quarantine cooks were born out of that experience.
But one year later, and two weeks into a brand new lockdown, there is a patina of anxiety and despondence in the air.
Covid-19 figures have been soaring for a few weeks now and for most home cooks, there is no longer the thrill of producing all sorts of exotic new meals. In many ways, anxiety has killed both the inspiration and the need for adventurous cooking.
Instead the focus has shifted very firmly towards healthy, comforting meals designed to boost immune systems and provide nutrition in spades.
During the first MCO, property developer Raymond Ng, 38, experimented a lot and even used exotic ingredients like hairy crabs and abalone in his meals. This time around, he is sticking to tried-and-tested comfort food, as his focus is on cooking hearty, healthy meals for his family so that everyone remains in good health throughout the pandemic.
This is especially important to Ng as not only does he cook for his wife Denise Chong, 37, and two young kids, Rayanne Deanna Ng, 9, and Raydence Devean Ng, 5, he is also responsible for the daily meals of his octogenarian grandparents – Dato Ng Tiong Seng, 88, and Datin Chan Lai Har, 87, who live with him.
“Nowadays people have less and less money, so it is not about eating wagyu beef or other luxury foods, I think it is about comfort food. So during these difficult times, my recipes are home-cooked, simple meals like marmite chicken, sweet and sour chicken and fried fish.
“For my grandparents, it is even easier to cook for them as they like simple Chinese food like steamed fish and steamed chicken. But I like to satisfy the appetites of everyone at home, so even though I make simple food, sometimes I cook three totally different meals to please my grandparents, wife and kids, ” says Ng, laughing.
Ng’s views are echoed by team manager Ezrin Nik Ismail, 38, who says she experimented a lot in the kitchen during the first MCO and was very, very adventurous with her daily meals.
But given the sombreness associated with the current lockdown, she has switched focus and with the help of her trusted multi-functional kitchen appliance Thermomix, she now churns out healthy meals for her husband Mohd Izrin, 36, and two kids Mika Danial, 4, and Lana Mariya, 2.
“Yeah, it is definitely about building up my family’s immunity. Now that I have a Thermomix, I make everything from scratch. My thinking has changed, I care about what goes into my family’s mouths – I care about how much oil is used in our everyday meals, and in that way, I try not to eat outside food anymore, ” she says.
These days, Ezrin says her go-to meals are dishes like chicken rice, soups, pasta and pizza. She also bakes bread and healthy muffins and often gets her kids to help her with the daily cooking to alleviate their boredom, as they are completely housebound.
“It’s definitely about comfort food and things that are very easy and simple to prepare. I also like involving the kids in activities like making pizza together, as this is a bonding exercise and my son loves pressing all the buttons on the Thermomix and adding ingredients into the machine, ” he says.
Stay-at-home mum Valerie Michael, 38, is also a big believer in healthy, balanced meals and typically makes a variety of dishes that serve her family’s nutritional needs like Chinese-style spinach soup, Indian dhal and pasta dishes. Valerie also uses her air-fryer a lot these days to create healthy fried food for her two young children – Adithya Isaac, 5, and Aryan Micah, 2.
“Oh yes, I use the air-fryer for everything from frying ikan bilis to frying fish, so that the kids get healthy fried meals, instead of the usual oil-coated fried fare, ” she says.
For other home cooks, the first MCO last year provided the ideal opportunity to learn how to cook more dishes. While some of the more extravagant or unusual fare might have been relegated to one-hit wonders, many wholesome meals have become mainstays now that the current lockdown is in place.
Saritha Devi Kirupalani, 36, for example is a lawyer with a hectic work schedule. Because she normally leads such a busy lifestyle, the first MCO actually gave her the chance to widen her cooking repertoire, and she used that time to learn how to make hearty, nutritious dishes like chicken curry and Thai green curry.
Although this iteration of the lockdown has been less fruitful from a cooking perspective, Saritha has been able to turn to the recipes she discovered in the first MCO.
“I was definitely cooking a lot more during the first MCO, I don’t think I even touched my laptop for an entire week. So that time, I learnt how to make dishes like chicken curry and rasam (Indian tamarind soup). But I think this time around, businesses have learnt how to run on a work-from-home basis, so for me, work is proceeding as normal so I don’t have that much time to focus on trying new things unfortunately, ” she says.
Stay-at-home mum Theresa Choo, 66, is one of few home cooks who is churning out more international fare this MCO. But Choo’s goal is relatable: she wants to keep her pandemic-fatigued family happy and nourished, which is why she has been making global food with a healthy slant.
“It’s been so long since we travelled anywhere, and the lockdown is another curb to travel, so every meal that I make is to pretend that we are overseas. I have made Japanese sushi, Mexican quesadillas and Thai tom yum during this period. I want to make meal times interesting, so it is something everyone in the family looks forward to during this tough period, ” she says.
Choo says having well-balanced meals is important to her, and she puts a lot of effort into making sure her meals are tasty and healthy.
“I know what goes into my food, because I am preparing it myself, so I don’t use too much oil and there is always plenty of fibre in every meal. Also my home-cooked meals are not too carb-heavy, because I find that when you order meals from eateries, it is always 80% carbs, ” she says.
Nearly everyone I spoke to has made a huge effort to include more fruits in their daily diet, largely to ensure they are in optimal health during the pandemic.
This is bolstered by the World Health Organization’s nutrition advice during the pandemic – part of which is to consume two cups of fruits (and 2 ½ cups of vegetables) every day as well as snacks made up of raw vegetables and fruits.
So many concerned parents are making huge efforts to inculcate the habit of eating more fruits. Ezrin for example, blends fruits and freezes it into fruit popsicles for her children.
Choo meanwhile has a daily dessert platter made up of an assortment of fruits. Saritha on the other hand, started consuming a lot of fruits weeks before her Covid-19 Astra Zeneca vaccination appointment and is now trying to covertly introduce a wider range of fruit into her four year-old daughter Rania Ravenesan’s diet.
“I ate a lot of blueberries and other fruits before I got vaccinated and I think that is why I didn’t have any side effects after the jab. And for my daughter, I’ve always tried to ensure she gets her veggies even though she’s a fussy eater. And now I’m trying to get her to eat more fruits. She recently started eating strawberries, which I’m so happy about because before this, she would only eat grapes, ” says Saritha.
Tuition teacher Amrawati Narayanan, 68, also takes great care to ensure that she and her daughter Rena Shan, 39, get lots of fruits in their daily diet now, especially as Rena hasn’t had her Covid-19 vaccination yet.
“I already got my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine but Rena hasn’t, so I want to make sure we are both in good health during this lockdown. So we have a lot of fruits in our house and either consume it fresh or as a smoothie, ” she says.
Ng has also taken to blending vegetables and fruits into smoothies for his children as he wants to boost their immune systems, given that they are too young to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
“My children dislike vegetables and fruits, so now every day, my wife and I blend it with yoghurt and make it into smoothies for them to drink and they like it so much, they ask for more!
“Before, we never really ate a lot of fruits. But these days, I watch the news every day for updates on Covid-19 cases and I am always biting my nails from the anxiety. So definitely, eating healthy is my priority right now, ” he says.
Although most people are trying to cook healthy meals at home as much as possible, sometimes it really isn’t possible to do it every day, especially when work beckons or cooking simply becomes too tiresome.
Ezrin for example, allows herself one meal delivery a week, although she tends to hand pick the businesses that focus on quality home-cooked meals that align with her own cooking style.
“I still cook a lot but I try to support local businesses because I feel like I want to do my part to help them out. I prefer food made by home businesses in my area, as it is still nice and warm when it arrives, ” she says.
Valerie believes that the growing number of people starting home food businesses has also resulted in a parallel number of consumers eager to support these smaller home-hewn establishments making quality meals.
“During the pandemic, I have seen a lot of people – including friends of mine – start small businesses selling food, mostly because times are bad and people have had to take pay cuts or sustain job losses. So I think many people are supporting these businesses and it also gives everyone the opportunity to try something different.
“Like for me, practically every weekend, I will order food from my sister who has a small business catering home-cooked meals on the weekends, ” she says.
Saritha on the other hand, confesses that with her busy work schedule, she does often have to turn to food delivery services for help, especially on days when she doesn’t have the time to cook.
“Oh yes, I turn to food delivery portals very, very often. But it also gets to a point where you are sick and tired of it, especially when you see the same food and the same restaurants listed over and over again, and sometimes that is what compels me to cook simple dishes.
“Like the other day, I made a Maggi mee goreng with lots of vegetables and prawns, even though I didn’t have much time after work. And that was purely because I was tired of ordering outside food!” she says.
For others, safety is so central to everything that they do that ordering meals is now verboten. Ng, for instance, actually co-owns a Japanese eatery and understands the need to support local businesses, but confesses that his desire to protect his family overrides his yearning for outside meals.
“I am a restaurant owner too – my restaurant does delivery and takeaway, but for me, home-cooked food is my priority now because I don’t want to get in touch with unnecessary people coming to my house as my grandparents are at home and they are very vulnerable, so I need to take extra safety precautions, ” he says.
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