Padma Krishnan’s mother was expected to wait on the men of the family — eating only after they ate and tirelessly cooking whatever they wanted. In a different way, Padma herself remains equally committed to her loved ones: for her, cooking is an act of an infinite measure of love, honed through years of hard work.
He sits languidly, legs crossed, watching her with twinkling eyes as she adds a heap of chopped onion slivers into a sizzling pan. Heady aromas weave through the air, evoking a lifetime of memories. As the chicken reaches the ideal simmering point (determined through clairvoyance honed by experience), she scoops a little bubbling gravy for him to taste. He declares that it is perfect. She smiles: Amma’s dish is complete. As she pours the succulent vermillion chicken into a serving bowl, he is already by the sink, cleaning up.
This modern well-equipped kitchen bears witness to a treasure trove of memories — golden afternoons spent learning to grind spices, the smell of Amma’s signature Chicken Paratel, and merry dinners with the neighbours. Home-cooked food packed with flavour never fails to reawaken such joyful recollections.
I visited Padma Krishnan to hear about her family recipes, and discovered the integral role of food in her family.
Padma, now 63 and a retired Deputy Controller, has just cooked her mother’s famous dry chicken curry, a staple Sunday dish from childhood. Her mother was well-known for this dish among the neighbours, for its aroma often permeated the neighbourhood. Padma recalls this in her cookbook, Madam Krishnan’s South Indian Recipes, produced after she responded to an open call from local publishing house Epigram Books.
As simple but profound tales are regaled by Padma, the tender strength of the women of the house — and the sacrificial way in which they strove to feed their families — is striking.
Ambrose Krishnan was a pillar in her daughter’s life, an unbeatable force at a time when male chauvinism was the norm. Padma fondly referred to her mother as a “gregarious and kind” woman and a brilliant cook who — like many of our grandmothers and mothers — could conjure up countless dishes by heart.
When Padma was growing up, her Keralite father, a foreman in the British army, ruled the house according to traditional customs. He ate first with the boys, enjoying a fine share of the meat, whilst the girls and their mother ate after—left with bones. “The boys were like kings, they just ate and walked away,” Padma recalls. She grew close to her mother and sisters because they felt like “second-class citizens”. She and her sisters had limited education. Together they helped out in the kitchen, where their mother cooked and cleaned tirelessly. Their father enjoyed entertaining visitors and was insistent on good food. Ambrose never complained.
Born in Singapore, Ambrose had relatives in Pondicherry, the French colony in the south of India, from whom she inherited a French influence in her dishes. This, combined with her husband’s Keralan roots and sisters-in-law who taught her new dishes to satisfy her new husband’s palette, made her a formidable cook with an arsenal of varied recipes — from mutton chops learned from living in a French convent as a child, to a traditional Indian confinement dish Padma now makes for her own daughter.
Every morning, Amma — as Padma called her mother — would visit the market for ingredients needed for the day. On her return, she would grind spices using a roller (her husband insisted on them freshly ground) and cook over a charcoal fire. The kitchen was where Padma learned several life lessons. “Put your spices there and play with it. You cannot rush. You just enjoy it,” Ambrose would tell her seventh child.
But Padma’s own journey to mastering cooking was bumpy, with several failed attempts — she once received a beating from her father for ruining a sambar, and on another occasion accidentally burned the mutton in her briyani. Those incidents lived on in the canon of family stories, mingled with painful criticisms that only the most positive and determined could turn into motivation — as Padma did — to prove them wrong.
Padma has achieved her life mission of becoming as great a cook as her mother was, and now feeds her own herd of two children and two grandchildren with dexterity and an infinite measure of love.
After being matched and married in 1973 to Jacob Sagaram, now 69 and a retired Environmental Health Officer, she practised hard at cooking. Dishes she herself found “unacceptable” as food were enjoyed by him. “He would be eating like it was the best dish in the world,” she mocks with a coy smile. While we chat, he smiles as she reminisces, painting rich scenes in the still afternoon heat. Here he gently chimes in, “We were just married. Whatever she cooks, she cooks with love.”
She felt she finally gained acceptance as a cook the second Christmas after their marriage, when relatives from her family were impressed by dishes she learned from his side of the family, and vice versa. Till today, she replicates her mother’s Christmas menu almost in entirety: pork vindaloo, pork and prawn chap chye, chicken joint roast and mutton chops.
As simple but profound tales are regaled by Padma, the tender strength of the women of the house — and the sacrificial way in which they strove to feed their families — is striking. Ambrose Krishnan’s greatest regret after being diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 70 was that she could no longer cook. A generous lady who would regularly whip up dishes for neighbours and friends, sometimes giving away food, she lived her last days with Padma, who would later celebrate her mother’s memory by turning painstakingly recorded recipes in yellowing notebooks into a slick modern compilation. For Padma, despite losing her sense of smell in a spinal surgery a few years ago (which is why Jacob plays the role of taster) the resilient memory of smell — and her mother — pervades.
Padma has achieved her life mission of becoming as great a cook as her mother was, and now feeds her own herd of two children and two grandchildren with dexterity and an infinite measure of love. On the days that she is busy with theatre rehearsals (Padma is an active member of several senior citizen theatre groups, including The Necessary Stage’s Theatre for Seniors Interest Group) or her part-time work with special needs children, she first cooks for Jacob before leaving the house. Her biggest fan is reluctant to eat food not cooked by Padma, and when he has to dine out, he jokes: “I eat very remorsefully.”
It is only at home that the colourful dishes which sit neatly in modern glassware shimmer with taste, conjuring comforting flavours in the hue of memory. Food is passed from hand to mouth, and dreams of the past shiver with the gentle beauty of a simmering curry.
Words and photographs by Ng Xi Jie
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir