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Why food is the best – and worst – souvenir to bring from overseas

It's a cumbersome activity but also has its rewards, says Jasmine Tay.

Despite my attempts to hide my travel plans, my friends and relatives inevitably get wind of them – and with that knowledge comes a barrage of requests for food from my intended destination. So I found myself braving monsoon rains to get boxes of lao po bing (old wives’ biscuits) on a recent trip to Hong Kong, all while cursing my soft heart for agreeing to be a mule.

The flaky pastries made it back in good condition, thanks to my hand-carrying them onto the plane. It is an unspoken agreement that once a transporter accepts an assignment, he or she, amateur as the person is in the profession of product delivery, is responsible for its (reasonable) quality upon arrival. I can’t imagine the bitter disappointment of a gourmet whose Japanese businessman husband brought back prized in-season uni from Hokkaido, only to have the delicacy turn sour for lack of proper refrigeration on the plane.

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Despite my reluctance to inconvenience myself, I must admit that food from one’s travels makes the best gift for friends and family. Singapore is a country of food connoisseurs who take pride in knowing where to get the best, say, century egg in Hong Kong or macarons in France – and who are not above asking for them from their travelling friends. Where other nationalities may delight in receiving a Serbian cokanjce crystal bottle, the Singaporean will wonder about the taste of the fortifying sweet rakia (plum brandy) it contains. Likewise, an ornate tagine bowl from a Marrakech souk has more value if it comes with ras el hanout spice. Bonus points if haggling was required.

For Elaine Lim, managing director of Deutsche Bank, it’s about sharing her travel memories through the palate. She has brought home musk melons from Japan and kimchi from South Korea, although the delicate nature of some items meant that she had to hand-carry them onto the plane. “I enjoy buying them, more so when those places have given me beautiful memories,” she says.

Thank goodness Singapore is more lax than produce-producing countries, in terms of food items entering its borders. For the conscientious, AVA’s SG Travel Kaki application gives the low-down on what can enter the country: 5kg of meats or seafood and a “reasonable” quantity of fruit and vegetables. Certain items – Hong Kong’s roast goose and century eggs – are prohibited.

Looking back, lugging home a perishable gift is still cumbersome but, often, it is tribulation that makes for some unexpected discoveries and entertaining anecdotes to share with folks at home. Moreover, the effort required provides that fleeting moment of gratification that resonates in both recipient and gifter. For me, the satisfaction of watching my excited relatives munch on lao po bing was impossible to substitute. “Can’t find one this good in Singapore,” an aunt gushed. Considering the soggy state of my shoes and a broken umbrella from my pastry hunt, it had better be good.

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