Above: Mum and Grandma replay the finer points of making Hockchew ang chow
What are the signature dishes you grew up with? What are the tastes you most look forward to at each big family dinner to celebrate Christmases, New Years, birthdays, and festivals?
When it comes time for your grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties -- the guardians of those famous family dishes -- to join that big banquet in the sky, would you know how to recreate those much-loved clan delicacies?
I had a huge panic attack when it dawned on me that I didn't.
So I set myself an assignment for the Singapore stint of this round-the-world sabbatical. I entreated my mother, Grandma and an armada of aunties to teach me how to make all those dishes I eat and love so well.
And, bloody hell, not a moment too soon.
Asked about her famous peppery shark soup, Grandma sighed and said she's forgotten how to make it. (I don't fully believe her. I'm going to make it with her in the kitchen anyway, hoping that the setting will jog her memory and she'll protest appropriately when I muppet something up).
A couple of aunties expressed relief that someone in my generation is taking an interest, since they recently declared that their old bones just can't take cooking giant meals for Chinese New Year anymore.
More consistently, everyone involved has been amazingly generous with their time, knowledge and good humour, putting up with my endless camera clicks, questions and sometimes hilariously amateurish techniques. Dad's been a star ferrying relatives around, and Mum's been a crucial go-between -- coordinating schedules, and translating dialects and measurements alike. Some aunties, delighted to pass on even more torches, offered up additional recipes treats on the fly (I can't wait to try eggs fried with Chinese rice wine).
Above: A heartwarming bonus -- my cousin Pearlyn (right) hears about my culinary quest and gets in on the action. Here she helps Aunty Swee Cheng to make fishballs from scratch
So it's been a great steamy, sweaty two weeks so far in the kitchen in Singapore, getting a culinary education at the elbows of my elders. A quick sampling of recipe posts to come:
- Grandma's ang chow (Foochow red rice wine) and Ang Chow Mee Sua
- Ah Dah's (Grandpa's) Hakka noodles, salted chicken and braised pig trotters, via Mum and our longtime nanny and housekeeper Aunty Kiew Moi
- Pak Meh's Hakka suan pan zhi (abacus seeds)
- Tai Gu (Big Auntie) Swee Cheng's handmade fishballs and siew mai (pork dumplings)
- Mum's guiltless char kway teow, hokkien mee, fried rice and kiam chye (salted vegetable) duck soup
And the gravy? The absolutely delightful bonus you always hope for but can never rigidly plan for? The stories that percolate and waft about, when given enough memory-triggering ingredients, time, and a gentle but eager ear. Like the story about Aunty Swee Cheng's worst day as an illegal fish hawker. Like the tips from Pak Meh about what you should never eat with beansprouts. Like Ah Dah's favourite but eyebrow-raising lettuce-wrapped snack.
Hang out in the kitchen for a bit to find out...