We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.
Many of us are probably familiar with the feeling of missing food from home when we’re on holiday.
While it can be great fun to try new cuisines, my fellow Singaporeans will probably agree when I say that there is little that compares to the warm embrace of a bowl of laksa, or the comforting familiarity of a plate of Hainanese chicken rice.
Like most of us, Ilya Noor, 32, a Singaporean who relocated to Paris two years ago, considers the easy access to cheap and delicious hawker food one of the things she misses most about home.
Unlike us (or at least me) however, the experienced home cook is able to recreate most of the dishes that she misses, even from half a world away.
Her passion for food has led her to set up Jom Makan (Malay for “Let’s Eat”), a private dining concept which she runs out of her apartment once a week.
The big move
So, how does a girl from Singapore find herself halfway across the world cooking food from home for a bunch of strangers?
When borders closed during the pandemic, Ilya and her partner decided to bring forward their 2024 plans to move in together.
It made sense for her to be the one to move, since she was able to work remotely as a financial consultant.
The couple also wanted to be close to her partner’s grandmother, who lives alone.
Surprisingly, when doing the sums, the couple also found that it would be cheaper to live together in Paris than in Singapore.
This is because Ilya’s partner owns the apartment they live in, which means the couple saves on rent.
With the Carte Vitale—France’s version of a health insurance card, their healthcare expenses are also heavily subsidised.
Additionally, she is also able to benefit from her partner’s company health insurance, which covers other needs, such as chiropractor and optometrist visits.
“My phone bill is less than €15 (S$22) a month and my gym membership is only €29 (S$42) a month. The lifestyle here is also vastly different—it’s not a big ‘going out’ culture. Friends prefer to have dinner parties and gatherings at each other’s houses as opposed to going clubbing.”
Now that she’s experienced living in two very different cities, I asked Ilya what she thought the major difference between Singaporean and Parisian life is.
“Definitely the slower pace of life. In Singapore, you wake up and you’re out the door in a half an hour. You don’t really do a lot of reflection in the morning, or at least I didn’t use to. But in France, I think life is slightly slower paced,” she reflects.
Besides learning to slow down, another thing Ilya had to get used to was the lack of spice in European cuisine.
“I once asked a waiter for something spicy in a French brasserie, and I kid you not, he brought me mustard!”
She also mentions some cultural differences that she had to get accustomed to when she first moved.
“Us Asians, when we receive presents, we’ll say thank you and open it after our guest leaves. But in French culture, they expect you to open it on the spot.”
And while most younger people do speak English, many in the older generation still do not, making it a necessity for her to learn French.
One thing she just can’t adapt to though?
“Shoes in the house! I just don’t understand it,” she says, adding that hers is a strictly “shoes off” home.
Day in the life
For Ilya, a typical day starts with a workout, followed by either French lessons or a visit to the market for her usual grocery shopping.
She also enjoys bouldering – a hugely popular sport in France.
Ilya also makes it a point to cook daily for herself and her partner, a task she enjoys immensely.
But even though she loves making Singaporean food, it is sometimes just not practical to cook for two.
“Yeah, I can make all of this,” says Ilya over our meal at Rumah Makan Minang, a nasi padang joint in Kandahar Street. “But I really don’t want to cook six things just for the two of us.”
The birth of Jom Makan
Ilya is part of a Facebook group called “Hungry Expatriates in Paris”, where she first noticed several group members looking for Singaporean and Malaysian food.
This was the perfect solution she had been looking for—to recreate the dishes she missed, and share them with others.
As a plus of course, she got to eat them as well.
And so, Jom Makan was born.
Currently, Ilya hosts guests once a week at home for a three-course meal.
While she usually sets the menu, she sometimes takes requests from her diners, some of whom have now become regulars.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh I miss chicken rice!’, then at the next event I’ll try to do chicken rice so that they can taste it.”
“When I first started Jom Makan, I didn’t see it as a money-making opportunity. I really just wanted to share my culture,” she says.
Now that the venture has taken off, Ilya has left her full-time job as a financial consultant, and intends to run it full-time as a catering business.
“If you’re Asian, you’ll know the place”
Some may think that it’s hard to source for authentic ingredients in Europe, but Ilya says that she can actually find most of the things she needs, thanks to an Asian supermarket in Chinatown known as Tang Frères (Tang Brothers).
“If you’re Asian and living in Paris, you’ll know the place.”
Even laksa leaves can be found at Tang Frères, thanks to the large Vietnamese community in Paris which uses the same herb— known as Rau Ram—in their dishes.
In fact, Ilya says that the food can sometimes taste better, due to the overall quality of the produce, such as beef, which is sourced locally rather than imported.
Still, there are some things which are just not the same.
For instance, ikan bilis (dried anchovies) is a key ingredient in many spice pastes, which Ilya makes a point to stock up on every time she’s back.
“You can find ikan bilis there, but it’s double or triple the price, and at a much lower quality,” she explains.
Ilya also misses the easy access to ingredients like kerisik, or coconut butter, which is a key part of many Malay dishes like rendang.
The laborious process of making kerisik involves grating, toasting and grinding fresh coconut to a paste, something Ilya had to do from scratch for a Hari Raya meal in 2021.
Contrast this to Singapore, where you can easily buy it in a packet.
Food as culture
To Ilya, food is an important part of her culture and cherished memories of growing up in Singapore.
Take the Lemak Siput Sedut, or Sea Snails in Coconut Gravy, one of her favourite dishes.
As a child, her uncle would take her and her cousins fishing.
While waiting for the fish to bite, they would take to the breakwaters to pluck these snails and take them home to cook this very dish.
The Terung Berlado (Spicy Eggplant), on the other hand, is a deceptively simple dish that reminds Ilya of her late grandmother, who taught her how to cook even as a young child.
For her grandmother, knowing how to cook well was a necessity.
To supplement her husband’s income as a chauffeur and raise 13 children, the enterprising young mother made snacks like kueh and epok epok to sell around the kampong.
“My grandma used to say, if you learn to cook, you’ll never go hungry. One, because you can cook for yourself, and two, you can make money from selling food, because people always need to eat.”
Wise words indeed, and words that Ilya has certainly taken to heart.
So, what does the future hold for Ilya and Jom Makan?
“I haven’t thought much about it yet, but as the catering business expands, I might have to invest in a central kitchen,” she says.
Collaborations are also something she’s interested in.
“I hope to work with other home cooks to offer foods from cultures that French people may not know about—for example, South American.”
You might even catch Ilya on French TV soon—she had earlier applied to Masterchef Singapore, but did not make it past the live audition round.
“For my next goal, I might just aim for Top Chef France!” she says.
Images via Ilya Noor
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