Compiled by SUZANNE LAZAROO
Hot buttered toast on rainy days is synonymous with my childhood memories, and so also spell out comfort and care, and a mother’s arms that are a safe place.
Also: licking the wooden spoon that stirred, for hours on end, the mixture of coconut and sugar that would turn into bright pink squares of coconut candy (lovely sweets, but somehow nothing could rival that spoon and its coating of still-warm sweetness); the fudgy chocolate cake that my mother still makes today, albeit not quite often enough for everybody’s liking; the filling, melting patties of potato filled with minced pork, that we called “mud pies” (a recipe passed down from my grandmother’s kitchen).
Many of us are lucky enough to have these memories of our mothers carving out a den of warmth and delicious smells and even better tastes in the kitchen. We wanted to share some of them with you, from the recesses of our much-loved and much-accessed mnemonic treasure troves.
Happy Mother’s Day to you all. And so much more, to our own mothers.
Jane F. Ragavan, deputy editor, Features Central
This is Lucy Ragavan’s go-to dish: abundance. Even when there aren’t enough people to finish everything, she cooks too much. The woman has no concept of portion size.
I asked my siblings about all her dishes that we love: crab or shark curry (mine!), crockpot wild boar, liver in kicap (not mine), puri and sardine curry, jam tarts (recipe follows), hae bee (she makes it with just the right “spreadability”), garlic beef, and cucur udang with her special blend chilli sauce, are just some of them.
For me, my mother’s rasam and salt fish will always be my favourite meal. She shallow fries salted ikan gelama dredged in curry powder, and serves it along with that seasoned oil.
I eat it by mixing some of the oil and crispy curry powder flakes through my serving of rice in a shallow bowl, flood it with rasam, and pinch off a little salt fish with every mouthful of rice.
When I can no longer scoop up the dregs with my fingers, I lift the edge of the bowl to my mouth and tip it in. And then I lick my fingers.
It’s the only time my mother doesn’t frown at my un-ladylike behaviour.
Easiest Ever Jam Tart
Makes 1 large tart
225g plain flour
1 egg yolk
Jam from a jar
Rub the butter and flour together in a bowl, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the egg yolk, and a few teaspoons of water if necessary, to form a dough. Cover and refrigerate until firm.
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, till about 1/2cm thick. Use a dinner plate to cut out a circle, or trim the edges to form a large square.
Place the pastry onto a baking tray. Lift a little of the edge and roll it onto itself to form a rim (or press the pastry into a greased tart tin.) Spread enough jam in the centre to cover the pastry in a thick layer, but not too much that it flows over the rim while baking.
Bake tart for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is light brown. Cool slightly before serving, then cut into slices.
Ann Marie Chandy, deputy executive editor, Features Central
My late mother, Susie Chandy, wasn’t really much of a cook. She had many talents, none of which involved slaving over a hot stove. However, there are a handful of dishes that I do associate with her.
For instance, she enjoyed making a version of steamboat at home, using a rice cooker as the simmering metal pot of stock in the centre of the table.
She was also an expert at making shocking pink coconut candy, and so every time I celebrated a birthday, I was able to take neatly-wrapped candy to school to distribute among my friends.
Whenever I fell ill, mummy would make me a glass of lime juice, and toast sprinkled with sugar but lavished with love, so that no matter how bad I felt, this simple plate always made me feel better.
Although we usually had traditional Malayali food at home (faithfully and deliciously prepared by our long-serving help Rasamah), I always had a penchant for Western food, and so it was with great relish that I would dig into my mum’s chicken in white sauce.
It was a pretty simple meal to prepare – remember, she didn’t really like chopping and pounding and all that jazz. There wasn’t any proper recipe, as far as I can remember, it was just a bit of this and a bit of that; the key ingredients were Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, and one can of Campbell’s chicken soup. Apart from chicken, she’d also throw in some vegetables and a healthy portion of mushrooms and sausages, which my sisters and I would fight over.
And just so we could pretend to be eating like the English do, my sister Susan and I would insist on using proper cutlery.
Susie’s Chicken in White Sauce
1kg chicken pieces
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
sausages, according to your preference
1 large onion, quartered
1 to 2 cups mushrooms
1 cup carrots cubes
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 can Campbell’s chicken soup
salt and pepper, to taste
Marinate the chicken pieces in Worcestershire sauce in the fridge overnight.
Place some cooking oil in a pan and brown the sausages, then add marinated chicken pieces and just sear them. Remove the chicken and sausages to an oven-safe casserole dish.
Cook the onion, mushroom and carrot in the drippings left in the pan until onion is soft. Remove the vegetables from the pan and add to the casserole.
To the drippings left in the pan, add the soup and bring to a simmer. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Depending on how thick the soup is, you can add water and chicken stock/bouillon powder or other seasonings at this point.
When the soup is thickened to the desired consistency, and the flavour is right, add it to the casserole.
Preheat the oven to 180°C, and bake till chicken is cooked, about 15 to 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes, before serving.
Optional: When chicken is almost cooked, sprinkle with cheese (and dried oregano, if you like) and continue baking till cheese melts.
S. Indramalar, assistant editor, Features Central
Sivagnanam Sinnathamby, my late mother, was a domestic science teacher for years, before she opted for early retirement to look after her three children. Because of her training, she had a wide repertoire of both local and Western dishes under her belt – of which we were the beneficiaries.
Almost every day, we enjoyed home-cooked lunch, tea and dinner (breakfast was sadly just soft-boiled eggs with bread … on Sundays we’d get to buy noodles and such) prepared by mummy.
Funnily enough, she never thought of herself as a good cook, claiming that she was very “cincai” and paled in comparison to her sisters, who she felt were much better cooks. But we had no complaints.
She knew what our individual preferences were, and took turns to cook our favourite dishes to keep us all happy. My favourite dishes were her pork chops (served with home-made chips and green peas), pork ball soup (made from scratch) and her mutton cutlets. Even after I became a vegetarian at 19, I’d have occasional dreams about those dishes. Thankfully, mum (who’d stopped eating meat nine years before me) had already perfected some vegetarian dishes to distract me from such nostalgia.
One regret of mine is that I never learnt much in the kitchen from her before she passed away, 12 years ago. It’s not that there wasn’t opportunity to – I lived with her until I was 33. I just wasn’t interested in cooking. I’d help her in the kitchen, merely performing tasks she’d assigned.
Come Deepavali however, I’d hang around the kitchen for days, and that’s why – out of all the many dishes she was known for – I have perfected the art of making coconut candy.
Now, each time I make the aromatic, devilishly sweet treat, I think of my mummy and the hours we stood in front of the stove, stirring batch after batch of coconut, sugar, milk and vanilla until the candy came together.
1 tsp butter, for greasing a lamington pan/baking sheet
3 packed cups grated coconut (white part only)
170ml evaporated milk
1/2 tsp salt
40g butter, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla essence
food colouring (my mum always used pink)
Grease a 20cm square baking sheet with butter. Set aside.
In a non-stick wok or pan, add the coconut, evaporated milk, salt and sugar. Stir the mixture over low heat, until the ingredients are mixed and the sugar dissolves completely (about 15 minutes).
As the sugar dissolves and forms a syrup, the mass should get really wet and sticky. Remember to keep stirring.
Add the butter, essence and colouring, stirring to mix well. Keep stirring over low heat until the mixture thickens.
Continuous stirring is necessary so that the mixture cooks evenly, and the bottom doesn’t brown.
As it thickens, the mixture will start to come off the sides of the pan. The tricky part is knowing when to take it off the heat – too soon, and your candy will be wet and soggy; too late and it’ll be a crumbly mess.
When the mixture starts to form a ball and is thick and not as glossy as it was before, that’s the time to remove it from the heat. It should still have a sticky texture. To be sure, pinch a small bit and set it on a plate. It should set firmly within minutes.
When it’s ready, quickly transfer the candy onto the greased pan. Flatten and level the surface using a sheet of aluminium foil. Make sure the candy is dense and compact.
Mark the top with a knife to indicate the squares you want to cut it into.
Cover with foil and leave it to set hard, about 30 minutes. When it is cool, cut the candy into squares.
Lennard Gui, Online features editor
Growing up in Melaka in the 1970s and 1980s, when my mother was in her 30s and 40s, I remember being told our house wasn’t a restaurant. She would cook and we would eat whatever was on the table. The thing is, I don’t think we ever complained.
My mother learned to cook from her mother the old-fashioned way: you watch and listen, and then you try and make it yourself. So from my grandmother, she learned the secrets of Eurasian cooking. And from my aunts on my father’s side, she picked up the how-to for Peranakan food.
When we were kids, it was the simplest things that brought us the greatest joy. Some nights, my mother would sit all three of us down on the living room floor and feed us by hand as we watched television. She would mash up rice and fried fish together, and make them into tiny balls, that she then popped into our mouths.
When we had grown up and moved out, and it was just my mother and father living together, she saved most of her cooking for our visits. Every time we called to say we were coming home, her first question was: So tell me lah, what you want to eat?
Our comfort menu included ayam buah keluak, ayam pongteh, beef rendang, chap chye, corned beef with egg and chilli, curry ambilla, curry devil, egg sambal, fish tail and fish egg curry, fried brinjal with soy sauce and pepper, ikan cencaru sumbat sambal, masak lemak with fish paste wrapped in cabbage, pork and salted vegetable soup, pork ribs with honey and soy sauce, prawns and pineapple masak lemak, sambal petai, siput sedut masak lemak, and a diced carrot-diced potato-minced pork concoction that she never understood why I loved so much.
The last time I ate my mum’s cooking was in February 2016. I’d brought my partner to Melaka for Chinese New Year. This was right after Christmas with her in December 2015, when we ate the traditional Eurasian feast of curry devil, curry devil and more curry devil.
Not only had she prepared tubs of her special rempah paste for her new “Mat Salleh anak angkat”, she also taught said anak angkat the Serani secrets of cooking for her son. These involved soul food recipes and instructions like getting “RM4 of small onions, seven pieces of kunyit, and just pour the vinegar in until you get the smell”!
In March last year, she met with an accident – and she will probably never cook again. It’s a devastating blow for a woman who loved her kitchen and all her utensils and gadgets and Martha Stewart pots, and for our family, who might never again taste the food we grew up with.
Yet hope remains while company is true. My partner has learned how to recreate the famous May Theseira rempah, and we’ve come this close to capturing the same flavour of her curry devil. We’ve already got the right smell. In fact, the last time we made her curry devil, she gave the greatest compliment a Eurasian mother can give an in-law cooking from her recipes: not bad lah!
Julie Wong, senior editor, Features Central
As kids, nothing pleased us more than the secret suppers sprung upon us late at night. So there would be toothy – or toothless, in some cases – grins all around, for good reason. For one, supper was a rare event, and these were inevitably slow-cooked treats.
My late mother, Lim Mooi Wah, would start cooking the salt-baked chicken or double-boiled sharks’ fin soup in the afternoon and it would be ready just as we thought we couldn’t stay awake any longer.
The chicken would be falling-off-the-bone tender and finger-licking good; the soup, an unctuous and rich chicken and shark fin stock, slippery with gelatin.
Outside of these dishes however, my mother was not known as a particularly talented cook. She was a somewhat begrudging cook, who would rather hurry over the cooking so that she would have time to sneak out for a game of four colour cards or si sek pai, which she enjoyed very much.
So the daily meals paled in comparison. Lunch was often just omelette and rice, or fried fish. And if you wanted sambal, you’d have to pound it yourself with mortar and pestle.
I always liked to say that my siblings and I were all motivated to learn how to cook to feed ourselves well because mum was such an uninspired cook.
Despite the fact, there are special dishes that I associate with my mother. One of my favourites was an aromatic dish of spicy fried fish flakes – try saying that fast a few times – which must have been her own invention to recycle leftover fried fish.
It’s a dish with a sense of place, made with local flavours, a remarkable fact for my mother to achieve being an illiterate Chinese migrant who spoke only Hainanese, her own mother tongue. It rather resembled an Indian shark puttu; living in a multicultural community must have inspired her.
As it has been decades since mum last cooked it – in her later years, she had no memory of it – and I have been hankering for the dish, I now try to cook it from my imagination.
It’s delicious when eaten with the hands and worked into hot, fluffy rice with sambal on the side.
Spicy Fried Fish Flakes
200g fried fish (tenggiri, kembong, etc)
2 tbsp cooking oil
6 shallots, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
15g ginger, shredded
10g turmeric, shredded
1 tsp fennel seeds
6 dried red chillies, snipped
3 sprigs curry leaves, snipped
2 tbsp grated coconut (optional)
3 stalks lemongrass, finely sliced
3 sprigs daun kesom or kaffir lime leaves, snipped
1 tsp sugar, or to taste
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
pepper, to taste
1 lime, quartered, to serve (optional)
Debone and flake the fish. Heat oil and fry the shallots, garlic and ginger until aromatic and lightly browned.
Add turmeric, fennel seeds, dried chillies and curry leaves, and fry until aromatic.
Toss in coconut and fry until aromatic. Add lemongrass and kesom, toss well. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper.
Serve with a squeeze of lime juice, if you like.
For a quick version, replace all the aromatics with 1-2 tablespoons of sambal belacan.