As much as Singapore celebrates gastronomic greats such as Gordon Ramsey, we should never neglect the artistry that happens in our own kitchens. My mother, in fact, is someone who’s created magic in the kitchen since she was 14.
While aspiring chefs covet stints at establishments such as The Fat Duck, elBulli or Noma, my mother learnt the ropes under the tutelage of her father, Othman Yaacob. In her own words, my mother shares with us her time in the kitchen.
I was born in 1960, the second child of Malay immigrants from Malacca. My father moved to Singapore to work as a policeman when he was 19. He moved back to Malacca briefly for his wedding and subsequent birth of my eldest brother, but lived the rest of his life in Singapore.
My father and I share many traits. Physically, I am the spitting image of him, inheriting his straight nose, deep-set eyes and fair skin – a gift from his Afghan ancestors. Most importantly, I share his penchant for story telling, drawing and cooking.
My father was a better cook than my mother. My mother was raised by her stepmother who bullied her into doing household chores instead of teaching her how to cook, which was a vital skill for a young woman at that time. Not knowing how to cook then was considered shameful by many. Meanwhile, my father was the second youngest of his all-male siblings. He had no choice but to learn to cook.
Growing up in Kampong Sungei Cina (present day Woodlands), our everyday meals were not extravagant. A typical meal consisted of rice, sambal, small fried fish and sawi (fried mustard leaves) in coconut milk. It was considered special whenever we had sardines. We rarely ate beef because it was so expensive.
A dish like beef rendang was a luxury, and still is today for some. This recipe is special and cooking it is a labour of love. Although it sounds quite cheesy, four hours of standing and nursing what’s on the stove without being paid is love.
I’m not sure where the recipe originated from, but it’s said that the Minangkabaus from Indonesia brought it with them when they migrated to Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia Malacca is just next to that state, so when people moved around, I suppose that recipes were exchanged.
Migration brought about the adaptation of recipes from all over the Malay archipelago. Of course, the Indians and Chinese also brought with them my favourite roti prata and cheng tng. When you look at new immigrants now, you wonder what it is they are bringing to Singapore besides their baggage.
Things were pretty relaxed back then. When we moved into our new flat in the 70s, we retained the tradition of cooking rendang on a makeshift charcoal stove but did so at a staircase landing. The neighbours never minded, in fact, we used to share the tiny, common space with six other families.
My youngest sister, who is 10 years my junior, once referred to me as her second mother. Our mother passed away when she was eight. When my peers were busy dating and hanging out in the city center, I was at home helping my father raise my four younger siblings.
Somehow, I can never exactly replicate the taste of my father’s rendang, even though I use the same ingredients and methods.
I was pretty nervous when I first started cooking for my in-laws. Although we were all essentially ethnically Malay, my husband’s parents were from Singapore and Penang, so their cooking methods and ingredients were slightly different from mine. To my great relief, they loved my cooking. My in-laws would say, “How did you cook this? I’ve had rendang before but I’ve never tasted one like this!” To this day they still ask for my rendang when they come over, and I always bring portions of it to their homes during Hari Raya visits.
Somehow, I can never exactly replicate the taste of my father’s rendang, even though I use the same ingredients and methods. Even my children prefer his rendang to mine, and would eat copious amounts of it whenever he cooked it.
Sometimes it irks me when my children praise all these chefs on television, with their what you call “fancy cooking”. Rendang is just as fancy, it takes the same amount of dedication and places the same emphasis on quality ingredients. I just don’t go on talking about it like the chefs on television do.
Cooking is a form of release to me. The preparation, the actual cooking and then serving it to my family – I can’t quite describe the feeling I get when all the dishes I’ve served are finished.
Words and photographs by Adibah Isa
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir