A wok with granny
Victoria Lim steps into her grandma’s kitchen to learn how to cook, and receives more than treasured recipes along the way.
There’s big trouble brewing in the kitchen between a 85-year-old executive chef and a 26-year-old sous chef. It starts off with intermittent grunting, disapproving head shakes and escalates into abrupt slapping of the hands. Exasperated comments come next. “Can you please chop a little faster?” “Do you not know how to use the scissors?” “Stop getting distracted by your phone; eyes on the pot!” Four hours and plenty of sighing and pitying looks later, a table filled with traditional Hokkien dishes is laid.
Welcome to my granny’s version of Hell’s Kitchen.
What you might ask is happening? Almost every Sunday
- for the last four years – I have been my granny or Ah Ma (in Hokkien)’s bumbling assistant, tasked with helping her to prepare our extended family’s dinners. The entire Lim clan of 24 members would travel to her tiny three-room flat in Bukit Panjang for this once-a-week repast, a ritual that was already in place during my toddler years, and probably earlier than that.
It was my dad’s idea that I should learn from Ah Ma while she is still healthy and willing to teach, but it didn’t take much to convince me to practice from the matriarch. As the only grandchild in the Lim clan who loves to cook (my 11 other cousins think I should take up another hobby), it dawned on me that her decades-long recipes like Bak Kut Teh and the Mee Sua with White Radish and Scallops could be lost forever if I didn’t invest time and effort to learn from her. It would be an enriching experience but it shouldn’t be too difficult to master. After all, I reason to myself: I can whip up one-pot pastas in a flash and baking rainbow cakes for my friends’ birthdays is a breeze. I could surely knock this traditional Hokkien cuisine out of the park in weeks.
I was so wrong.
Cooking with Ah Ma is a case of judo: it flips you, tosses you and it can be scary, confusing, humbling and liberating at the same time. In the beginning, I was at a complete loss and a hindrance to her and my aunts, a bull in a china shop. I would slice the pork belly the wrong way, measure in tablespoon instead of teaspoon, and roll the liver ngoh hiang up, only for it to break apart. I had to learn to pound chillies and garlic repeatedly in a mortar and pestle until the fiery scent assailed my nostrils, like the helpers from yesteryears.
Case in point: Chinese New Year 2014. I was tasked to remove the head and the roots of the bean sprouts. Such an easy task, you think? But I failed it – I missed out a whole bunch and was rewarded with comments like “if you can’t do this, I don’t think you can do anything else”. I was then slapped with heavier duties; I had to scrub off the guck from the pig’s intestines (for Pig’s Organ Soup) and sea cucumber (for Braised Sea Cucumber with Mushrooms). It was then I thought to myself, why were my aunts and granny going through such intense mise en place when Grab Eats was just a few clicks away.
Four years on, I’d like to think I am less of an obstacle to my Ah Ma and can navigate my way around her kitchen, albeit with some strict supervision. She still does not trust me to braise pig trotters or prepare the fillings for popiah, but at least now I can fry Hokkien Mee with ease.
As cliched as this sound, the best part about cooking with Ah Ma (and aunts) is listening to their growing up stories. Like the tale about how my dad burned the family’s pot of porridge because he got distracted while watching TV. Mind you, that was the family’s entire dinner. To cover up his mistake, he dimmed the lights so that no one could notice the burnt bits. Or how my second uncle licked all the watermelon slices so that he did not have to share it with his other six siblings.
Cooking with Ah Ma has taught me loads. What I admire about her is this fearless spirit. She never went to culinary school but picked up a wealth of knowledge by snooping around restaurants. Because she has seven kids to feed, she taught herself to cook and bake for the family. Now past her retirement, she still labours for hours in the kitchen because she knows a homecooked meal brings the family together.
It has certainly brought my aunts together, and not just for gossip sessions (the recent one involved sharing why second cousin had to call off her wedding). I’m happy to help with the preparation work, even though it’s extremely tough. It definitely beats ordering food delivery. I understand better who I am, and what makes my family members the way they are – a hardworking bunch with a wicked sense of humour. After all, I am the product of my grandma’s creations, not Deliveroo’s.