A Matter of Milk

Text and photography by Elodie Bellegarde

Milk. One of the simplest and most natural foods we have come to love. Its white beauty gives it a connotation of purity, and at times, indulgence. It brings creaminess to a comforting cup of hot chocolate and its canned counterpart is a sweet touch to a strong cup of coffee. Albeit often relegated to a subdued addition to food and drinks, milk has been an essential part of the human diet for millions of years. Most of us have been brought up on it from a very tender age. Milk is a food of love. It brings sweetness to the newly developed taste buds of a newborn, accompanies us during the first years of our lives and is a discreet companion during our coffee and tea breaks.

However, our relationship with milk is intricate. Our taste buds find it delectable whilst our body sometimes does not tolerate it, particularly as we get older. Lactase, the enzyme responsible for the digestion of the white gold, is to blame for such an intolerance. Known to decline from the moment we get a taste for solid foods, our digestive system can struggle to process milk and especially lactose, the carbohydrate found in milk. Our genetic heritage is also accountable for this complex digestive matter.

As intricate as the molecular composition of milk may sound, this complexity contributes to making it an incredibly versatile food and ingredient. Milk is everywhere and comes in various forms. It is a basic component in scrumptious ice-cream, the sweet addition to kopi and the extra layer of indulgence on a slice of kaya butter toast. Cultures from around the globe have adopted it, whether in its most natural form or its processed versions. Yogurt is one of the many examples. Derived from fermented milk, yogurt is a staple ingredient in European and Levantine societies, where it is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Butter, the indulgent cream-derived ingredient, forms the basis of numerous culinary extravaganzas to the delight of bakers and sauce makers in the same way ghee, its clarified counterpart, is paramount to Indian cuisine. Milk is so fundamental to cooking that it is in one form or another featured in most cuisines.

Milk has also found its place in Singapore’s local culinary culture. The white liquid is present in our everyday life and at every kopitiam. It has been turned into a sweet and glossy milk concentrate to cut the sharpness and bitterness of coffee and tea, to the delight of kopi and teh lovers. The addition in a kopi ‘c’ of evaporated milk, a milk product where 60% of water has been evaporated, satisfies those in search of creaminess and less sugar. The use of canned milk evokes older times when milk was an expensive commodity, its canned counterpart much more accessible. Whichever way we like our daily cup of coffee, it is fascinating to see how older generations have stayed true to traditions.

Read more in The U Press N˚5 (Singapore edition).