Like many grandmothers, Xi Jie’s Ah Ma loves to cook. In this article, she explores a grandmother’s love and sacrifice for her family, as well as the tale of how the black sauce crab came about.

Tan Cha Boo, 73. My Ah Ma
Tan Cha Boo, 73. My Ah Ma

My Ah Ma likes her food very sweet and very spicy. She has no qualms about thickening a curry with glugs of coconut milk or adding unhealthy mounds of ketchup to a wok of bubbling gravy, a style described by my mother as “a bit reckless”. To eat her food means venturing into the unknown depths of high cholesterol. Yet my Ah Ma religiously maintains a daily exercise routine, and is so sickeningly healthy that my Ah Kong calls her yao guai (monstrous creature). She attends dutifully to her husband’s palette and will cook anything on request from her children and grandchildren, but has never sacrificed her mahjong time for restaurant treats from them. The image of a grandmother in the modern-day Singaporean family is one of sacrificial provider, endowed with endearing traits and devoted to pampering her grandchildren. Ah Ma is no different.

Like most grandmothers, the kitchen is her home in the house, and I wonder if it is possible to think of these ladies without arousing our taste memories with the familiar dishes we love. When I think of Ah Ma, I am reminded of thick curries, sweet chap chye (mixed vegetables), dark soy sauce scrambled egg, and saccharine sweet bo bo cha cha (a dessert made of coconut milk), among others. Her kitchen is always rich not just with tastes and aromas but also with her generosity and kindness. It is not her domain – for she is never the possessive alpha female – but a picnic area where members of the family take turns to enjoy her cooking at the cramped dining table while she whips up more dishes. My mother is exceedingly fond of visiting her mother’s kitchen for her Chinese “birthday noodles”, or one of her favourite dishes, black sauce crab.

Ah Ma's black sauce crab
Ah Ma’s black sauce crab

This black sauce crab dish has a lot of family history, a bit of mystery and a measure of cruelty behind it. According to Ah Ma, it is a typical Teochew (a Chinese dialect group) dish, though not as famous as the traditional cold crab served at Teochew restaurants. The grimy-looking but succulent dish was enjoyed in both her and Ah Kong’s Teochew families, but it was not until she was married to him at 19 that she mastered at cooking it from her mother-in-law while living in Malaysia. A relative who sampled her crowning attempt remarked that it was “good enough to open a restaurant in Singapore”. Now, it is one of Ah Ma’s winning dishes.

When I asked Ah Kong, a retired entrepreneur and businessman, about this crab dish he was eager to regale us with its chequered history. His family had been seafood traders in Johor Bahru. They owned three kelongs (offshore wooden platforms used for fishing), so it is no surprise that black sauce crab was a regular feature on the family menu. When Ah Kong was still a child, he would wake up in the middle of the night to help unload seafood brought in by fishermen, go to school in the morning and help out again in the afternoon, sometimes selling the fresh catch to markets in the Serangoon area across the Causeway. For a short period in his life, he refrained from eating crabs because he could not stand the sight of them.

In contrast, Ah Ma came from a poor family where the dish only made its appearance on special occasions. She retorts, “How could we afford crabs?” When she was bringing up her own children, underwear was home-sewn. She was even poorer in her childhood. Her mother-in-law – whom she sums up succinctly as “she never cared for me”– passed down the recipe presumably so that her new daughter-in-law could cook the dish for her son – and cook she has until this day. The situation has not changed much. As Ah Ma potters about, Ah Kong sits at the dining table in his gaudy faux-silk pyjamas and Rolex watch. Like a greedy, intelligent boy, he dexterously pries open the crab and slurps the luscious flesh. He continually encourages me to eat the roe of the crab. It is yummy I have to agree and reminds me of Ah Ma bent over the sink, killing the creature while it is still thrashing around.

Ah Kong enjoying Ah Ma's cooking
Ah Kong enjoying Ah Ma’s cooking

Although the dish is surprisingly easy to cook, preparing the crab takes fortitude and a certain disregard for animal rights – typical of all Asian grandmothers who are hell bent on cooking elaborate meat dishes and stews to strengthen the constitutions of their future scions. When Ah Ma brought live crabs home from the market, she would chuck the creatures, limbs all tied, into the freezer. Hours later, she would remove the frozen crustaceans and proceed to de-limb them in the sink one by one as they feebly waved their limbs. She would attempt to lie to me that the movements I observed are just her own violent manipulations of the crab. It involves pulling, some grunting and finally, a big chop to the middle of the torso. I couldn’t bear to look.

But I still eat. It is extremely difficult to resist a grandmother who cooks with love, even when the grandmother has been cruel to something else. The oily crabs look gloriously grotesque in their deep black and fiery orange hue. The taste is rich with black sauce made from soybeans, the dish’s key ingredient. Ah Ma says “chilli crab is for you young people”, and that “us Teochew people prefer black sauce crab”. But its true origins are slightly mysterious, with a likely Cantonese influence due to similar provincial origins. The Cantonese have a similar crab dish with the same base sauce, but with eggs added to it. When I mentioned this at the dinner table once, my mother realised she had all these years mistaken the charred black lumps in her beloved dish for eggs. And with the typicality of a cook who does not care too much to eat her own food, Ah Ma declines savouring the crab, reckoning the extrication of the meat too troublesome. But she always watches us enjoy it with relish.

“Which woman doesn’t like cooking?”

Cooking is irretrievably tied to the identity of a woman like Ah Ma, who was a housewife, but for a while also ran a modest provision stall with Ah Kong in a market in Ang Mo Kio. She is almost defined by her food, and it becomes something she embraces wholeheartedly as she finds it empowering to feed and nourish her family. She proclaims, “Which woman doesn’t like cooking?” I am not surprised that Ah Kong has never cooked in his life. From a time where just getting by was a struggle, food has defined existence and is now a ritual that earmarks the passing of life. A musing she frequently repeats is, “Ah Ma doesn’t think too much. I just think about what I want to eat today, what I want to eat tomorrow. Like that, life is good.” Her epic buffets – cooked from four in the morning to lunchtime and serving hoards of friends and relatives with no less than 10 unique dishes – keep her going. During these occasions, she is at her happiest as she bustles around in the latest pair of furry slippers from Bangkok.

Ah Ma in the kitchen, where she feels most at home
Ah Ma in the kitchen, where she feels most at home

Ah Ma is 73 and her name is Tan Cha Boo. Ah Kong is 76 and his name is Kuek Tiam Huat. She has a simple, almost laughable name, likely a phonetic translation of char boh (meaning girl) in Hokkien; he has an auspicious name shining with possibility, to ensure success and happiness in life. Cha Boo is now an old girl. Life, with its trials, has come and mostly gone. The days are relaxed with occasional fun. But for me, her oldest grandchild, mythology and magic still exist in the great black depths of her 50-year-old wok, which she continually praises, as ingredients fly under a strong feminine hand. My mother says of the crab, “It means mother’s dish. No one else can cook it.” It seems to me less a sentimental response than a testimony unabashedly affirming the existence of Mother who lives to nourish us, like all mothers, and claiming that one as her very own idol.

Words and images by Ng Xi Jie.

Published by the Singapore Memory Project in association with Studio Wong Huzir

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