Culinary anthropologist Nithiya Laila remembers her growing years as one where she was surrounded by nature. Her grandfather would bring home fruits like soursop and bananas that he had plucked off a tree. When they were ill, her grandmother would give them shots of crushed India Borage.
“While my friends were buying toiletries from Tangs, I was trying to make things that can be found in my kitchen and clogging up my bathroom sink. My mother always asked, ‘Why can’t you use shampoo like everyone else your age?’” shares Nithiya, chuckling.
Her time as an anthropology undergraduate in London would become the inspiration behind Brunch Bandits, a roving concept of communal meals. The international community of students she was with started cooking and sharing dishes that they remembered from home.
Nithiya recalls the meals being distinct in their identities even from those who lived in the same country. “It was a way of connecting and sharing your culture and food was the medium,” she says. She also revelled in the local farmer’s markets, working there several hours a week and having a taste of what it could be like to build a career around farm-to-table sustainability and cultural cuisine.
Brunch Bandits was launched in 2012 in the form of informal pop-ups and cooking meals in her friends’ homes. It soon grew to become dinners that revolved around the places she had visited and cuisines that she missed. The theme would be reflected in everything from the music playlist to the design of the table placements. The menu would be conceptualised with input from someone — not necessarily a chef — from the theme country sharing their personal recipes.
“I don’t think it is just about going on the Internet and Googling five recipes from a culture, you have to have conversations,” emphasises Nithiya, who is also the presenter for the ongoing Channel News Asia series Edible Wild, where she explores native ingredients.
The organic nature of Brunch Bandits — there was no permanent space and the people you met would always be different — appealed to those who loved its spontaneous vibes. It has set up in spaces from a Kranji farm carpark to The Projector. Meals are made with local ingredients as much as possible.
“The intention of Brunch Bandits was always to be local, social and mobile. I want to celebrate global south cuisine — cuisines across the equator and below — and cultures and share that we’ve more diversity in Singapore than just the four race boxes,” she says.
She is encouraged that her concept has inspired more F&B businesses to recognise the value of cultural cuisine and adopt it more frequently in their menus. Her current passion project is SG Seed Exchange, a community platform that connects quality native seed growers with seekers. She is also working on a Native Plant Festival in September.
“It’s always been about diversity in voices, diets and recipes. If you want to increase biodiversity in your environment, it can start with how you eat. And that’s what we’ve always been trying to change,” she says.