A hunger to prevent loss of family dishes

FOOD TRADITION: Mr Heng's project My Mama's Recipe Is Betta! features signature dishes from 38-year-old Grace Yip's family, among others.
A hunger to prevent loss of family dishes

A hunger to prevent loss of family dishes

LEARNING HISTORY WITH FOOD: The Homemade Singapore project aims to encourage youth to learn more about family dishes and curate the stories that come along with them.
A hunger to prevent loss of family dishes



    Feb 22, 2016

    A hunger to prevent loss of family dishes

    REDISCOVER signature dishes of local families with Singapore millennials who are passionate about preserving them.


    Photo-project 'My Mama's Recipe Is Betta!'

    It is not uncommon in Singapore to be having a meal and hearing someone at the table say: "My (insert family member) can cook this better!"

    While most of us would chuckle awkwardly and let the remark slide, local photographer John Heng prefers to ask the person if he knows how to make said dish and, if he does not, why not.

    "I got answers like 'My mum finds me bothersome in the kitchen' or 'I never thought about it'.

    "More sobering replies would be along the lines of 'because they are no longer around'," he said.

    Mr Heng was inspired to start a personal project with the working title My Mama's Recipe Is Betta!, where he intends to make a series of photos and short videos to document different families in Singapore through their process of making a signature dish.

    Ideally, each set of photos and short videos would start at the market, with "an introduction to the family butcher who has been saving a particular cut for them every week for the last 30 years, then the prep at home, the cooking and, finally, sharing the meal".

    The aim is to begin the project next month, starting with about 10 to 12 families - one a month - and compile everything in a blog. After that, he hopes to do something more elaborate, like work with a chef to curate charity dinners from the recipes, for instance.


    Teochew sticky cakes

    "I have always been obnoxiously proud of being Teochew," said Gwyneth Teo, while mixing glutinous rice flour and water into a glossy dough.

    The TV producer/writer is showing off her grandmother's recipe for lok tng ji, a Teochew snack which resembles muah chee rolled in sesame seeds.

    Apparently, the sticky cakes are not readily available in their ancestral homeland, Teo Ann or Swatow.

    It is a heirloom dish that appears only on dining tables of dedicated families during festivities.

    So it is a blessing that Ms Teo has always been close to her grandmother and has helped out in the kitchen since young. The matriarch lived with the family for 20 years before she died six years ago.

    "It was quite upsetting, and the first Chinese New Year after, we didn't make any of her dishes.

    "The tradition had to be restarted," said Ms Teo, who works at production house The Moving Visuals Co.

    While the kitchen traditionally belongs to womenfolk, lok tng ji requires a fair bit of strength during the kneading process, explained the petite Ms Teo.

    This marks the first year the 26-year-old is involved from the start to the finish.

    It is a two-man job: One holds the pot down while the other stirs the sticky dough with a rolling pin.

    "It's an ingenious method and best for lengthening the gluten strands," she said, while huffing and puffing away.


    Grandma's signature dishes

    Home videos may have gone out of fashion but the Tang family's grandchildren are bringing them back with a purpose - to document the recipes and cooking methods of their grandmother's signature dishes.

    Their mission was sparked this Chinese New Year when they realised their grandma, Fun Joon Siong, 78, was unable to cook as much as she did in the past because of her health.

    So the nine of them came up with the idea to spend some weekends filming a series of videos of their grandma explaining her recipes while they carried out her instructions.

    "We were reminiscing about our favourite dishes and saying it's such a shame that our popo (grandmother) doesn't really cook anymore," said one of Madam Fun's grandchildren, Grace Chen. "One of my cousins happened to have her GoPro at the gathering so we thought why not film the recipes and learn to cook them ourselves," added the 25-year-old, who works in marketing communications.

    Like most of her cousins, Ms Chen does not cook on a daily basis but will be getting her hands dirty this Sunday when they film their first "episode", starting with a very traditional Hakka dish - suan pan zi (abacus seeds) - as Madam Fun is Hakka.

    Subsequent episodes will most likely cover family favourite dishes such as black vinegar pig's trotters and their grandmother's secret-recipe fried chicken wings.

    Said Madam Fun: "I am very happy that my recipes will be passed down through the generations because if nobody learns, then everything will be gone."


    Traditional Malay kueh

    At the start of this year, Adilah Rahim, 30, made a resolution - to learn how to make one new kind of traditional kueh every weekend.

    "When I was about to move into my own place, I realised I had never made the effort to learn about my own traditional kueh or food," said Ms Adilah, a project manager at an American consulting firm.

    "So I started learning to cook traditional meals and this year, I decided to challenge myself and learn (making) kueh as well.

    "One a week seemed manageable so I dedicate a few hours every Saturday or Sunday to do it," she added.

    So far, she has made seven different kueh, including kueh keria, which is her father's favourite, and kueh nagasari, which is her own favourite.

    Along the way, she consults her mother Samsiyah Ya'acob, 58, who said: "To me, desserts like cakes and cupcakes are basically the same and they all have the same base.

    "However, every traditional kueh is unique on its own."

    Like most traditional parents, Madam Samsiyah believed in teaching her daughters how to cook from a young age, which is why Ms Adilah made her first pot of rice (in a rice cooker) at the age of 10.

    Said Madam Samsiyah: "When I learnt from my mother, there were no exact recipes. I just followed her instructions on what to prepare, and by doing so, I got used to it and tend to cook the same way. I try to be more systematic when I teach my daughters and implemented some measuring of condiments to help guide them."


    There has been much talk about the impending loss of Singapore's hawker culture but little on the loss of family dishes, especially when the older generation passes on. Seeing how the latter issue is also a worrying trend, a group of four university students hopes to change this with Homemade Singapore, a culinary social movement.

    The campaign aims to encourage youth to learn family dishes and the stories that come with them.

    Homemade Singapore was initiated by Sheena Wong, 23, Wong Wen Bin, 25, Mohamed Haikel Aziz, 26, and Tai Wei Jie, 25. They are final-year advertising students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

    "We were looking at topics to work on for our final-year project and saw that the loss of hawker culture was a topic fast gaining the attention of mainstream media and the masses," said Ms Wong.

    "But there have not been any conversations about the loss of family dishes, which we felt was a pity, as many of them are facing the same problem."

    Their campaign is targeted at youth aged 18 to 25. Since they began the movement last August, their Facebook page has garnered over 1,400 likes.

    The public can take part in the campaign through several ways, one being to share their family recipes on the Homemade Singapore website.

    The four have also collected and curated a series of stories behind everyday family dishes. Presented in photo galleries, articles and videos, readers can explore what each family dish means to different people.

    For young people who want to be home chefs, the Homemade Singapore website has a section on tips, comprising a series of cooking videos.

    The group also plans to publish a cookbook, featuring 10 youths' family dishes and recipes, and are currently gathering submissions for this.

    "Our goal is to encourage the learning and preservation of home dishes among the young, as many take their family dishes for granted," said Mr Tai.