On the trail of heirloom recipes
SOMETHING unusual is happening to Singapore's millennials - oft-lamented as narcissistic and youth-obsessed, with little interest - much less respect - for the older generation. Of late, a different picture has been steadily emerging - one that sees the likes of university student Ayeshah Mirzha not chomping down on salted egg croissants or duck confit and waffles, but gently sauteeing curry spice mixes or rolling dough under the watchful eye of her mother.
The 23-year-old is on a quest to preserve the cooking traditions of her family, from her grandmother down to her mother. The first step is to master different types of curries and chapattis from her mother, "who is the head chef at home but I take over when she's tired".
The next challenge is to be as good as her grandmother, who still makes pathiri - a rice flour pancake - from scratch. Pathiri is a popular dish among Muslims in Kerala, South India, where grandmother Jameela Beevi is from. "Grandma makes pathiri during the fasting month. I've not tasted it anywhere else except at home," says Ms Ayeshah, adding that it is a tedious process to make and it requires a lot of arm power to knead the dough. "Still I want to learn how to make it."
Like a growing number of her peers, a sense of identity - and food as a universal form of bonding - is what spurs Ms Ayesha to learn cooking from the older generation. "Family recipes connect me to my roots, and making these dishes evokes good memories," she says.
Some of them are even showing more interest than their parents did at their age. Teo How Cher, 60, recalls being dismissive of his mother's lok tng ji recipe, a sticky cake rolled in sesame seeds. "Last time, when my mother wanted to make it, I would tell her to 'just go and buy outside lah, since it costs only S$2,' " says the retired businessman.
He only started learning his mother's recipes when he was about 30, while his daughter, TV producer Gwyneth Teo, at 26, had already mastered a few. "It's very good that the next generation starts from such a young age," he says.
In November 2015, Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information conducted a study among 280 Singapore youths aged 18 to 25.
Four of five respondents admitted that despite knowing of its importance, they are not actively taking any steps when it comes to preserving and learning their family recipes.
But it is never too late to start learning how to make family favourites, regardless of age.
Grace Yip, 38, who works in a bank, makes it a point to come home earlier from work, so that she can learn cooking from her parents. When Chinese New Year comes around, she helps in the preparation of the reunion dinner with her siblings. "That is how I learnt to pick up some of the more traditional recipes that are prepared only during this period," she says.
Ms Yip adds: "As the next generation, we need to take over these family traditions. We cannot wait till it's too late and there's no one to learn from, or the older generation is too weak to teach. You have to make it a priority to take these traditions into the future and how you can create your own traditions."
Preserving heritage through recipes
THERE has been much talk about the impending loss of our hawker culture, but little on the loss of family dishes, especially when the older generation passes on. Seeing how the latter is also a worrying trend, a group of four university students hopes to change this with Homemade Singapore, a culinary social movement.
Put simply, the campaign is a movement to encourage youths to learn family dishes and the stories that come with it - a preservation of both family recipes and heritage.
Homemade Singapore was initiated by Sheena Wong, 23, Wong Wen Bin, 25, Mohamed Haikel Aziz, 26, and Tai Wei Jie, 25. All four are final year advertising students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, with a shared passion for homecooked food.
"We were looking at topics to work on for our Final Year Project and saw that the loss of hawker culture was a topic fast gaining the attention of mainstream media and the masses," says Ms Wong. "But there have not been any conversations about the loss of family dishes, which we felt was a pity as many of them are facing the same problem."
Their campaign is targeted at youths aged 18 to 25. Since they began the movement last August, their Facebook page has garnered over 1,400 likes. "Hopefully, this is representative of people who support and believe in our campaign," says Ms Wong.
The public can take part in the campaign through several ways, one being to share their family recipes on the Homemade Singapore website.
The four have also collected and curated a series of stories behind everyday family dishes. Presented in photo galleries, articles as well as videos, readers can explore what each family dish means to different people.
One of them, national serviceman Tan Jeng Yih, 22, recalls how his grandmother made a fierce ngor hiang (chopped chestnut, prawn wrapped in bean curd skin), but since she died five years ago, the family has not had any ngor hiang like hers. Armed with just a barely legible recipe scribbled on a piece of paper, he has tried to recreate grandma's ngor hiang but has found it tough. "The recipe isn't detailed, such as for the amount of ingredients needed. As I didn't learn how to make it from my grandmother, it took some time to figure out how to get it to taste as good as hers," says Mr Tan.
He would make a batch, and then get feedback from relatives on how it can be improved. "It isn't as good as grandma's but my relatives are happy to see ngor hiang back on the dining table," he says. Mr Tan plans to continue working on the recipe and perhaps "reinvent it so that I can pass it on to the next generation," he says. "I'm glad to be doing this, as it is a waste for traditional recipes to be lost or forgotten."
For young people who want to be home chefs, the Homemade Singapore website has a section on cooking tips, comprising a series of cooking videos. "We curated based on the perspective of a complete beginner and therefore simplicity, clarity and entertainment value were our main qualifiers," says Ms Wong.
The group also plans to publish a cookbook, featuring 10 youths' family dishes and recipes, and are currently gathering submissions for this.
"Our goal is to encourage the learning and preservation of home dishes amongst the young as many of them take their family dishes for granted," says Mr Tai. "Furthermore, we hear many stories from adults in their 40s who express regret that it is often too late by the time they want to learn the recipes. This is something we want to prevent."
Sticking to a Teochew classic
Teochew sticky cakes
"I HAVE always been obnoxiously proud of being Teochew," declares Gwyneth Teo while mixing glutinous rice flour and water into a glossy dough. The TV producer/writer is showing off her grandmother's recipe for lok tng ji, a Teochew snack which resembles muah chee rolled in sesame seeds.
Apparently, the sticky cakes aren't readily available even in their ancestral homeland, Teo Ann or Swatow, both of which the Teo family has visited - it's one of those heirloom dishes that appear only on dining tables of dedicated families during festivities, in China or Singapore.
So it's a blessing that Ms Teo has always been close to her grandmother, and has helped out in the kitchen since young. The matriarch lived with the family for 20 years before she died six years ago.
"It was quite upsetting, and the first Lunar New Year after, we didn't make any of her dishes. The tradition had to be restarted," says Ms Teo, who works at production house The Moving Visuals Co. The first couple of years, they completely bungled the dish. "The ratio was totally off, because there's no record of the recipe!" laughs Ms Teo.
While the kitchen traditionally belongs to womenfolk, lok tng ji requires a fair bit of strength during the kneading process, explains the petite Ms Teo, which is why this marks the first year she's involved from start to finish. It's a two-man job: one holds the pot down while the other stirs the sticky dough with a rolling pin.
"It's an ingenious method, and best for lengthening the gluten strands," she observes, while huffing and puffing away. "If I ever get married, my husband will have to do this with me, Teochew or not - to love and to hold, in sickness and health, and in making lok tng ji!" Other recipes on her to-try list include ou kueh (steamed yam cake), orh nee (yam paste) - not the tame modern versions but one with slabs of boiled lard crystallised in sugar - and even png kueh, a glutinous rice dumpling packed with dried mushrooms, dried shrimps, chestnuts, and minced pork shoulder.
It's not just about the food though; like many hipster millenials, the 26-year-old also identifies as a "nostalgia freak" who enjoys finding out about her heritage and customs. "Now, when my parents say something that's interesting, I'll ask - like the stories behind proverbs or dishes."
She has also learnt to clean the family's Buddhist altar, an annual ritual done seven days before the Lunar New Year. "My dad has suddenly realised that he doesn't have sons, so I have to learn everything," jokes Ms Teo, though she wonders about propriety - such tasks are typically done solely by men. 'What happens if it's ahem, that time of the month?"
That thought brings her to a Teochew nursery rhyme she's just learnt from her mother: "It's full of punchlines about an ugly sister-in-law - it's horrifying and funny at the same time, we can be so sexist!" But she's the only one in her generation who's invested enough, so it falls to her to keep the heirloom fires burning.
Hainanese heritage trail
PLAYWRIGHT Joel Tan is fiercely proud of his Hainanese roots, but you wouldn't know that from his work on stage (The Emperor's New Clothes). Start talking about food though, and the conversation turns inevitably towards eating and being Hainanese.
For one, the avid homecook will have you know there's more to his culture than our national dish: "It's not just chicken rice, there are things like local 'Western' food and Nanyang coffee too!" He's always thought that lesser-known Hainanese fare gets too little love, so when he started cooking - induced by boredom on weekends off from National Service - heirloom recipes ranked right up there. The 29-year-old has since learnt to do braised mushrooms from his mother, and stewed pork belly with radish and salted fish from his father.
"Hainanese tend to do a lot of one-pot or one-pan dishes, it's rustic peasant food," observes Mr Tan. Likewise, the pork belly is relatively fuss-free - all the ingredients can just be thrown together in a crock pot. However, the domestic maestro goes a step further by introducing new tricks. He par-cooks the radishes by simmering them for 20 minutes (a Japanese method for removing bitterness, we're told), and renders some fat off the belly. Both are then stewed for two hours in lightly salted water, with a thumb of smashed ginger. The salted mackerel is added only at the end so it doesn't overwhelm the broth.
Given Mr Tan's fervour for all things Hainanese, it may seem strange that he doesn't speak the language. But it's not for lack of trying: "It's one of the harder dialects to learn, and not as commonly used," he says wistfully. Food has perhaps become one of few remaining links to a world slipping from his view. It hits him at unexpected moments - he remembers one such episode while watching Alfian Sa'at's Cooling Off Day:
"There's a Hainanese cab driver who appears and his entire monologue is in dialect, and it moves me that I hear a music to his words which I recognise, but cannot understand or speak," he muses. "Things like that motivate me to reclaim facets of my own identity - even if it's through something other than language, like food." He's also slightly miffed that the Hainanese haven't quite been in the limelight as much as the Peranakans. "Peranakans loom large in the story-telling of Singapore's identity and food culture, but Hainanese people were a big part too."
Apart from Hainanese or Chinese dishes, Mr Tan can also whip up curries and rendang with homemade rempah. Next on the agenda is his father's steamed sea bass, which has more of a Cantonese influence; it calls for a scalding of hot oil and a gingery scallion sauce. The older Mr Tan is a retired sea captain, and is so particular about seafood that he only ever uses fish he's caught himself.
Zooming in on signature dishes
Photo-project 'My Mama's Recipe is Betta!'
IT'S not uncommon in Singapore to be having a meal and hearing someone at the table say: "My (insert family member) can cook this better!" While most of us would chuckle awkwardly and let the remark slide, local photographer John Heng prefers to ask the person if they know how to make said dish, and if they don't, why not.
"I got answers like 'my mum finds me bothersome in the kitchen', or 'I never thought about it'. While more sobering replies would be along the lines of 'because they are no longer around'," he says. From those conversations however, Mr Heng was inspired to start a personal project with the working title My Mama's Recipe is Betta!, where he intends to make a series of photos and short videos to document different families in Singapore through their process of making a signature dish.
"The primary goal, is to create an opportunity for the family to bond through food, and give the recipe a chance to be passed down," says Mr Heng.
Ideally, each set of photos and short videos would start at the market, with "an introduction to the family butcher who has been saving a particular cut for them every week for the last 30 years, then the prep at home, the cooking, and finally, sharing the meal."
While he is currently still sorting out some of the logistics, the aim is to begin the project next month, starting with about 10 to 12 families - one a month - and compile everything in a blog. After that, he hopes to do something more elaborate like work with a chef to curate charity dinners from the recipes for instance.
One of his potential subjects who has signed up for the project is 38-year-old Grace Yip, chief operating officer of group HR at DBS Bank. She has been learning how to cook her parents' dishes for about five years now.
Some of the dishes she has picked up her father are a Cantonese-style chicken soup and his signature almond cookies, while her mother has been teaching her how to make a Hokkien-style stuffed crab which was passed down from her grandmother.
Says Ms Yip: "Learning recipes was always something that was important to me. At the back of my mind I knew my parents are not so old but they're not so young either. So it's important to preserve the family tradition and legacy, and food is a major way that you actually can keep this legacy going."
Taste of heritage - one kueh a week
Traditional Malay kueh
AT the start of this year, 30-year-old Adilah Rahim made a resolution - to learn how to make one new kind of traditional kueh every weekend.
"When I was about to move into my own place, I realised I had never made the effort to learn my own traditional kueh or food," says Ms Adilah, a project manager at an American consulting firm.
"So I started learning to cook traditional meals, and this year I decided to challenge myself and learn kuehs as well. One a week seemed manageable, so I dedicate a few hours every Saturday or Sunday to do it," she adds.
So far, she has made seven different kuehs, including kueh keria which is her father's favourite, and kueh nagasari, which is her own favourite.
Along the way, she would consult her mother Samsiyah Ya'acob, 58, who says: "To me, desserts like cakes and cupcakes are basically the same and they all have the same base. However every traditional kueh is unique on its own."
Mdm Samsiyah used to make kueh with her own mother back when she was a child, to sell and earn extra income for the family. She recalls that "back then, everything used to to be made from scratch. If we wanted coconut milk, we had to de-husk it, cut it open, and extract it. These days, the markets sell grated coconut that is done by machine."
Like most traditional parents, she believed in teaching her daughters how to cook from a young age, which is why Ms Adilah made her first pot of rice (in a rice cooker) at the age of 10.
Says Mdm Samsiyah: "When I learnt from my mother, there were no exact recipes. I just followed her instructions on what to prepare, and by doing so, I got used to it and tend to cook the same way. I try to be more systematic when I teach my daughters, and implemented some measuring of condiments to help guide them."
Chimes in Ms Adilah: "She would often say to us things like 'you should learn how to cook this otherwise how are you going to cook for your family, or for your mother-in-law?'."
True enough, Ms Adilah's husband enjoys eating traditional food, so learning to cook them has paid off. Some of the savoury dishes she has picked up from her mother over the last few years are the ones they cook specially for Hari Raya, such as beef rendang and sambal goreng - all things she also hopes to pass on to her own children someday.
Says Ms Adilah: "I think when we live with our parents, we take advantage of the fact that they are always cooking. But then when we live on our own and have kids, we realise they will never appreciate traditional food if we don't learn to cook it for them."
'To me, desserts like cakes and cupcakes are basically the same and they all have the same base. However every traditional kueh is unique on its own.'
Grandma to reveal recipes on video
Grandma's signature dishes
HOME videos may have gone out of fashion (now reduced to 7 second clips made for social media), but the Tang family's grandchildren are bringing them back with a purpose - to document the recipes and cooking methods of their grandmother's signature dishes.
Their mission was sparked this Chinese New Year when they realised their grandma, Fun Joon Siong, wasn't able to cook as much as she did in the past because of her health. So the nine of them came up with the idea to spend some weekends filming a series of videos of their grandma explaining her recipes while they carried out her instructions.
"We were reminiscing about our favourite dishes and saying it's such a shame that our popo (grandmother) doesn't really cook anymore," says one of Mdm Fun's grandchildren - Grace Chen. "One of my cousins happened to have her Go-Pro at the gathering so we thought why not film the recipes and learn to cook them ourselves. It would also be a good activity for us to do together as cousins and spend time with our popo," adds the 25-year-old who works in marketing communications.
Like most of her cousins, Ms Chen doesn't cook on a daily basis, but she will be getting her hands dirty this Sunday when they film their first "episode" starting with a very traditional Hakka dish - suan pan zi (abacus seeds) - as Mdm Fun herself is Hakka.
Following episodes will most likely cover more of grandma's family-favourite dishes such as black vinegar pig's trotters, curry chicken, braised duck, and her secret-recipe fried chicken wings.
"When I was younger, it was an obligation to be able to learn all these things, especially as the eldest daughter in my family ... I started cooking when I was about nine years old," says Mdm Fun, speaking in Mandarin.
Where she picked it up from, however, was a little less straightforward especially in an era where recipe books did not exist. Instead, she learnt by observing how other people cooked, picking up tips from neighbours in her kampung (braised duck from a Teochew neighbour, curry-making tips from an Indian neighbour) and, of course, going through many rounds of experimentation.
It's clear that she loves cooking too, as the 78-year-old is most enthusiastic when it comes to talking about her recipes. "I'm very happy that my recipes will be passed down through the generations, because if nobody learns then everything will be gone," she says.
For the youngsters, the reason they want to learn the recipes is simple. "Our meals at gatherings were always cooked by our popo, so it's something that bonds all of us - the food, and the memories tied to it," says Ms Chen.
Her cousin, 26-year-old Alfred Tang - a copywriter at a gaming company - describes his attachment to his grandmother's cooking: "By the time we (her grandchildren) were born, she was already a good cook. As we were growing up, we enjoyed eating her food. Of course, when she saw us so happy to eat, she made even better food, and we were even happier."
This article was first published on February 20, 2016.
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