Ingredients for focaccia bread.
Food & Drink

Pandemic Cooking with Medhā Lim

The first thing most people would notice about Medhā Lim is probably her unique name.

Either that or it’s her bubbly personality with a touch of thoughtfulness. The first time we met years ago, she gifted me a guide to small independent retailers that I’ve been eyeing for months and the cutest pouch resembling a bowl of fishball noodles seeing that I come from a family of fishball noodle hawkers.

As she patiently explains, probably for the umpteenth time, Medhā with a macron (¯) means wisdom, in Pali, the Middle Indo-Aryan language of Theravāda Buddhism. Without the macron, it means sacrifice.

A communications practitioner at a well-known social media company, Lim describes her work as “using tech for good”. She is in charge of building partnerships with external stakeholders such as international non-governmental organizations, academics and community partners to ensure policies and content are well-informed, appropriate and meet the company’s mission.

In her free time, Lim focuses on growing a different kind of relationship. “I love gathering with friends and family over meals as it means taking a break from our own lives and spending time mindfully together.”

Sharing meals with loved ones has become somewhat of a precious commodity in Singapore with the government imposing various degrees of lockdowns, border closures and even limits on group sizes for social gatherings since more than one year ago. Restrictions were even tightened in May with a month-long ban on dining-in at restaurants and eateries.

These days, every little thing counts. She tries to find time in the week to go grocery shopping with her family for a semblance of normalcy.

Lim laughs as she points out what could be considered her lockdown achievement, “I’ve learnt to bake sourdough bread—a year after everyone else—and recently picked up focaccia. I take it as a feat because I used to really abhor touching sticky dough but I’ve learnt to overcome it ever since I was told ‘dough smells fear’!”

“My friend taught me the least messy way to bake sourdough, and her riff on focaccia, using a recipe from One More Treat, continues to be ace every time I bake.”

The accidental home baker muses, “There’s something about freshly-baked bread that hits all the right notes for me. I feel ready for the day’s work after breakfast, and my breakfast is usually a slice of toast and a warm drink. So having the option of bread that I baked myself lets me begin the day on an even better note.”

What Lim really likes about focaccia is it is a blank canvas ready to be filled with anything. One could stick to the usual ingredients or use a medley of leftover ingredients in the refrigerator at the end of the week, even thinly-sliced potato!

She’s already dreaming of making small pizzas next. “I’ve just learnt that this focaccia dough can be used for pizzalettes so I can’t wait to try this out at parties when restrictions on social gatherings are lifted. I never thought I could make pizzas at home!”

“There's something very empowering knowing that you are the one who created your meal.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Lim had spent a few weeks thinking about how to create nutritional meals with a limited pantry. Otherwise living in a pandemic hasn’t particularly changed the way she approaches cooking. 

Her father, however, has gotten into the habit of trying out new recipes. “He never used to cook much, if at all!”

Cooking as a family in the pandemic, Lim has learnt that everyone is game to try new recipes, even unfamiliar ones. Then again her family is pretty easy going when it comes to food. “Sometimes breakfast can be as simple as chopped coriander and spring onion on buttered toast!”

More importantly, the pandemic has cast a new light on things no one paid much attention to in the past.

Lim quips, “There’s something very empowering knowing that you are the one who created your meal. You know what goes inside, you’ve made choices—even if that sometimes just comes down to raiding the pantry—and you made something good out of what you have!”

In these strange, uncertain times where we have so little control over what is happening, perhaps she’s right. The mere act of putting together a modest meal might just be the slice of reassurance we didn’t know we needed.

FOCACCIA (BAKES ONE 500G LOAF)

INGREDIENTS

400ml water
100g starter 
12.5g salt
25ml olive oil, and more for greasing and drizzling
325g white bread flour 
50g semolina flour
125g plain flour 
a handful black olives, diced
a handful sun-dried tomatoes, diced
a generous sprinkling Herbes de Provence
half a small bowl shredded Cheddar and Mozzarella 
a large pinch chili flakes
a small pinch salt flakes
half a lemon zest

DOUGH PREPARATION

  1. Pour water and starter into a large bowl and mix.
  2. Mix all three types of flour into the mixture until flour is fully incorporated. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  3. Wet hands (incredible tip because dough doesn’t stick to wet hands) and mix salt thoroughly in by punching it into the dough until a smooth ball forms.
  4. Add oil and thoroughly mix it into the dough. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Perform three double coil folds every 30 to 45 minutes and bulk ferment the dough until it doubles in size.
  6. Place the dough into a container with lid and retard dough overnight or for up to two days.
 

BAKING

  1. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and generously grease a baking tray with olive oil. Transfer the dough to the centre of the tray.
  2. Stretch the dough across the tray and repeat until it fills the tray. Let rest until it comes to room temperature or for up to three hours. The dough will loosen and bubble up.
  3. Dimple the dough and push black olives and sun-dried tomatoes into the dough. Sprinkle Herbes de Provence, chili flakes and lemon zest over the dough. Feel free to vary quantities of fillings per preference and focaccia surface.
  4. Sprinkle the dough with salt flakes and drizzle generously with olive oil.
  5. Let rest for 30 minutes and heat the oven to 240°C/ 464°F before baking for 20 to 25 minutes.
  6. Add cheese towards the end of baking so that the loaf doesn’t come out looking burnt.
  7. Once browned to your preference, remove the loaf from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely so you won’t get a steamed, soggy bottom.
  8. Slice and eat once it has cooled down!
Written By Wee Ling Soh Writer & Photographer Wee Ling Soh is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer with a soft spot for street food.
Wee Ling Soh is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer with a soft spot for street food.