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.

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

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.

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