Taste in food is subjective, and there was no cause to fire up another debate on the Best Chicken Rice or Best Nasi Lemak in Singapore.
In making this Viddsee Originals social documentary series Memories On A Plate, director Ng Yiqin focused on matters of the heart instead, and on stories about food that nourishes the soul.
We speak to Yiqin about how she uncovered that subtlety and how she found the heart in each bite.
Memories On A Plate leads with a human-interest angle. How did you go about casting each of the featured personalities?
Firstly, they have to be passionate about food. Food had to have significance beyond nourishment. Secondly, the emotion behind food is important. I want to hear about the stories behind a particular dish, what it represents to them, reminds them of.
In tackling the topic of food in Singapore, were there any stereotypes you wanted to avoid?
I knew that food is a passionate subject among Singaporeans. There is no point in trying to establish the best ‘nasi lemak’ etc. as everyone has their personal favourite. However, this subjectivity became a starting point for me to explore how tastes are formed. I wanted to move away from ‘best chicken rice’ to ‘dish that reminds me of home/family/warmth’.
What were some of your influences when crafting this series?
There’s an American series called The Migrant Kitchen which I came across during my research. I loved the deeply personal histories of how seemingly humble immigrant food evolved and gained relevance through chefs’ imagination and reinterpretation.
How did you foster or create the intimate look and feel in the episodes with the personalities featured, discussion of food, and the cinematography?
I was influenced by Netflix’s Chef’s Table; how the cinematography captured the world-class professionalism behind each plate. However, as this series was not about professionalism or the craft of making food, I had to make sure that the way each episode was shot reflected our cast’s character.
Having a very solid pre-production process ensured that everyone was on the same page. Adopting a ‘less is more’ maxim, our very lean crew became very hands-on and doubled up multiple roles when required. I think it was also this mentality that created an intimate feeling on set as everyone felt in sync.
Most of the cast we worked never had filming experience before, and everyone helped to ensure that they felt comfortable. With food, there is only that 5 to 10 minutes window when food comes out steaming hot, so everyone had to work well in a team to capture the important moments.
What were you surprised to learn in the course of making this series?
My producer and I were worried about the difficulties of securing diverse locations and cast. Besides that, I also wanted to highlight that food is a communal experience, whether in the making or eating. To bring this vision to life, we had to gather crowds for scenes.
From the markets, to the dormitory, to restaurants, to homes, people were very willing to go the extra mile to make it work. Some last minute requests popped up during production, but almost everyone we reached out to was willing to accede to our request. For me, it was a #faithinhumanityrestored moment.
Did you have a favourite moment on set?
It would have to be Grandpa Quah’s episode. As a 91-year-old man, age was catching up with him. However, there was a particular moment which seemed to make the challenges worth it.
We had to shoot a scene of Grandpa Quah and his daughter flipping through old family photos from 50, 60 years back. His eyes lit up, and he became animated as if a flood of memories rushed back. I felt very touched and privileged to be able to capture this precious moment, and I knew that our work had value and longevity beyond the series itself.
What is your favourite personal memory on a plate?
It would have to be my mom’s fried noodles. It may seem simple and nondescript, but I remember the times when I reached home late at night, and upon finding out I’m hungry, she would quickly whip up a delicious plate of noodles.
To me, this unquestioning act is my mother’s love expressed on a plate.
Memories On A Plate is part of the Viddsee Voices project to develop original films that explore with local content creators issues commonly overlooked in our society.