Memories are made of dishes

Memories are made of dishes
PHOTO: The New Paper

Cooking for her traditional Peranakan family has been a lifelong passion for this mother of three.

But at 91, Madam Cherry Tay is becoming forgetful of the things around her, including fond memories of her family sharing home-cooked meals.

Disappearing too is the ability to cook the age-old Nonya recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Says Madam Tay: "I am old already. My (domestic) helper does the cooking now."

But all is not lost as her youngest child has taken an interest to her cooking and learnt the recipes from her.

Says Madam Tay's daughter, who wants to be known only as Caroline: "If no one learns these recipes, they will be lost forever."

That said, from Aug 1, anyone can learn how to prepare these dishes, which up until now, have been tasted only by Madam Tay's family.

Her recipe for a variant of udang goreng assam, or fried tamarind prawns, will be one of 50 dishes that will be featured by crowdfunded initiative My Singapore Food.

Started by marketer Karen Nah as a personal project, it has raised almost $18,000 so far out of a target amount of $30,000.

The recipes featured are unique, which means that no one outside of the Tay family has tried them before.

The dishes will be presented in online videos that include interviews about the importance and history behind each item.

Miss Nah started the project with a belief that home-cooked flavours should be preserved.

She says: "At home, I am quite blessed to have home-cooked food every day, but many friends I know say that eating out is the norm."

Indeed, one in three Singaporeans eats out more often than at home, according to a 2014 survey conducted by household and professional appliances company Electrolux. But the survey also showed that two in 10 actually prefer doing so.

Another survey

The National Nutrition Survey conducted by the Health Promotion Board in 2010 showed similar results - six in 10 Singaporeans eat out at least four times a week.

Says Miss Nah: "It is a pity that people don't cook at home more often. Many people can therefore only reminisce about the taste of a dish they ate when they were young and regret not having learnt how to cook it."

For Madam Tay, the tamarind prawns bring back memories of the time spent with her late mother.

Madam Tay's love for cooking started when she was a convent schoolgirl in Malacca, when her mother taught her the recipes.

"My father had many wives as was the norm for large Peranakan families. So I was very close to my mother and spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her," a wistful Madam Tay recollects.

She holds up a framed yellow piece of paper with a handwritten recipe for the tamarind prawns that her mother wrote.

They contain the ingredients and steps needed to create the dish but does not state the amount of ingredients or the method used.

Explains Caroline, in her 50s: "Without any help from the recipe's creator or people who are familiar with the taste, you cannot reproduce the dish just by looking at the written recipe. This dish has my mother's love in it. It is what I grew up eating and also what my mother grew up eating too."

About My Singapore Food

Miss your mother's home-cooked food but not quite sure what the recipe is?

Well, the next best alternative is to try what other mums have made for their children.

My Singapore Food is a not-for-profit crowdfunded project that aims to preserve 50 family recipes.

They were compiled from recommendations by chefs and restaurant owners here, some of whom will also be featuring their family recipes.

Says Miss Karen Nah, who spearheads the project: "Because these are home-cooked food, they should be easy to try out. These are all dishes with a history."

My Singapore Food hopes to raise $30,000. This will pay for the filming crew to produce the videos, say Miss Nah.

It has raised around $18,000 from more than 60 backers so far.

The short videos will be uploaded to a website by Aug 1 and can be accessed for free.

So far, the team has already produced videos for about 30 recipes and are still in the process of filming.

Depending on the amount of individual contribution, backers will also receive perks such as cookbooks, free meals or other souvenirs.

The crowdfunding campaign is hosted on Crowdtivate, a platform started by StarHub.

Visit www.mysingaporefood.com or www.crowdtivate.com/projects/view/3184 to find out more about the campaign.

Some featured dishes

Steamed pork with salted fish

A Cantonese dish inspired by the late grandfather of Ms Sharon Lam, who remembers him mincing slabs of pork shoulder with a Chinese cleaver.

Working as a seaman, her grandfather honed his culinary skills by making his way up the ship ranks, from repairman to cook and finally, to ship captain.

This dish was Ms Lam's home-cooked lunch until she was 12, when he died.

Mum's heavenly rice cakes

Hand-pressing sticky rice into shapes with her mother is one of Ms Kim Nah's fondest memories during her primary school days.

These rice cakes are her mother's own creations, made out of leftover rice and simple ingredients such as garlic, dried shrimps and mushrooms for packed lunch the next day.

It is still being made by her mother till this day.

Green chilli prawn sambal

A traditional dish served during special occasions in Madam Mary Teresa Especkerman's household, this recipe was passed down from previous generations and influenced by their Chinese-Portuguese heritage.

It is a spicy dish not meant for the faint-hearted, with its mixed spices paste prepared traditionally by pestle and mortar.

Madam Especkerman remembers pounding the paste in her youth with her mother, shedding tears as she prepared the onions.


This article was first published on July 19, 2015.
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