Tan Sri Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria launched The Smell Of Home the weekend after Malaysia Day for a reason.
“I wanted it to make a statement about being Malaysian,” explains the former secretary-general of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti).
At the launch, she told family and friends, “It saddens me to see this nation, which just celebrated 60 years of independence and 54 years as Malaysia, become divided by race and religion, and appear to be less tolerant. Increasingly, I see the imposition of the majority on the minority.”
Sta Maria’s “tale of heritage and comfort food” counters that with a celebration of diversity through the stories of her family and her paternal grandmother’s recipes which, she stresses, are not purely “Kristang”. Her father’s mother was of Melaka Straits-born Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. Through the generations, her relatives have married Malaysians of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Kadazan descent, among others.
The book describes her childhood in Melaka’s Portuguese Settlement and focuses on the four women who had the biggest impact on Sta Maria and her siblings. Her paternal grandmother, her mother, and two paternal aunts were ordinary people and ordinarily, nobody would be interested in their stories, she believes.
But Sta Maria, 59, sees their lives as “bigger than just us”.
“We have to see their stories in the context of this country: the simple people who go unnoticed but who make contributions, to building families of integrity and values,” she says at an interview after the book launch.
And because of the position that she held and the friends that she has in various places, she adds, “I could make such statements”.
Before sharing her grandmother’s recipes, Sta Maria describes “Mama”, who was married at 16 and widowed at 46.
With two of her eight children still in school, she took in laundry and sold kuih to support the family.
“Mama had a very strong influence on my siblings and me,” she says, “but the younger ones had so little knowledge of this woman.” And, she reckons, it’s a story worth telling.
As she cared for her extended family, Mama roped in the children to help – and they inherited her attention to detail, her organisational and time management skills.
Sta Maria looked after her younger cousins, helped with the housework and cleaned the shrimp when the catch came in to make belacan (dried shrimp paste) and chincalok (pickled shrimp).
At Christmas, one of her tasks was to chase after the turkeys in their compound to snatch a feather or two which would be washed and then used to brush the egg-wash on the pineapple tarts. “Nobody thought of it in terms of child labour,” she laughs. “It was fun!”
What she learned from Mama served her well in managing both her career and her own home. At work, she looked at the big picture but kept in mind that the details were also important.
“I took an interest in every aspect of work at Miti,” she says. “I may not have had the depth of knowledge in some of the areas but I had to know what was going on.” She was hands-on but, she stresses, she didn’t micro-manage.
Sta Maria also shares the advice that her mother, Nanny Dolly, gave her on the night before her wedding: “Don’t change your name. Don’t quit your job. Have a separate bank account.” She says she’s the only sibling who managed to do all three.
And at home, Sta Maria says, she also applied Mama’s example of organisation and planning. “You prepare and work backwards.”
For pineapple tarts, for example, she makes the jam first and then freezes it. She makes the pastry the night before.
For the kari keluak, she has to plan far ahead because the black keluak nut has to be soaked for a fortnight. “You need to think things through and maybe be less spontaneous,” she says.
And she prepares both types of tempra (fresh spice paste) and stores them in the freezer. “Then making the curries is so much easier,” she notes. (Recipes for all of these are in the book.)
Mama never complained or looked unhappy, Sta Maria says. “She pooled her resources and made do.” And from her grandmother, she’s learned to count her blessings.
“When I was working, I would ask what is it that you can control and what is it that you can’t? And let’s not fret over the stuff you cannot control and spend your energies on things you can’t really do anything about.”
That’s why she opted for early retirement, she notes. “I said I’ve done enough. It’s now time for me to take control of the things that matter to me, so I left and can now do things that I enjoy.”
The Smell Of Home by Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria is self-published and sells for RM50. To order a copy, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Overseas orders must include postage.