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Keeping Singapore's family food recipes alive

Madam Mardyyanah, 38, has revived her late grandfather's original mee rebus recipe for her elderly grandma, but are families finding it difficult to pass down family cooking traditions to the next generation?

SINGAPORE: Madam Markamah Abdullah is 79 years old. It has been 47 years since her husband, Haji Bakar Abdullah, started navigating the kampungs of Pasir Panjang, peddling his famous mee rebus. And it has been 15 years since he passed away. 

She has never tasted mee rebus like his since.

Now, Madam Markamah’s mind is slowly giving way to dementia. Her memories come and go, and there are good days and bad. But her granddaughter, Mardyyanah Awang, knows one thing for certain – her grandma never forgets the taste of her late husband’s mee rebus, a much-loved Malay dish of yellow noodles in thick, rich gravy. 

Madam Mardyyanah, 38, told On The Red Dot that Atok Bakar’s recipe is an authentic mee rebus recipe that is rarely being used today. It has become an antiquated recipe of sorts among many commercial cooks, since the original recipe of this deceptively simple dish reads like a labyrinthine code tucked away in a maze of instructions and procedures that navigate 25 ingredients, and includes spices, vegetables and meats, such as beef flanks.

(See Atok Bakar’s original recipe at the end of this report.)


Food critic KF Seetoh believes that if people understood the artisanal craft that goes behind some of our most simple and traditional food, people would appreciate these dishes better.

LOSING OUR HERITAGE TECHNIQUES

Madam Mardyyanah’s attempt to revive a family recipe brings into question whether Singapore is losing much of its heritage foods, as hawkers and famous old cooks call it a day without heirs to their businesses.

Is the younger generation doing enough to keep a record of their family’s unique recipes or techniques?

According to Singapore food critic KF Seetoh, many commercial cooks are resorting to shoddy workarounds in their preparation of mee rebus, a sign that age-old family recipes are simply tough to recreate. Reviving them, then, can be difficult.

“Today they resort to short-cuts. They use flour because they are lazy,” said the founder of food consultancy company, Makansutra.

“The act of buying sweet potatoes, boiling them, mashing them and turning them into a sauce is a craft that people originally appreciated.

“Unfortunately, a newer generation of food lovers who have not been exposed to the artisanal craft behind the original mee rebus would not know the difference.”


Food writer and stylist, Ms Annette Tan, says the interest in learning family food traditions usually set in at a later age. (Photo: Courtesy of Kat Wong)

IT’S A GENRATIONAL THING

Food writer and stylist, Annette Tan, 42, boils it down to a generational situation when it comes to appreciating family heritage through food.

“It depends what age group we are talking about when we talk about ‘young generations’. Most young people may not appreciate history until they get older, when they are in their late 30s or 40s. When their parents and grandparents are old, or when they lose one of them, that’s when they realise a sense of nostalgia,” said Ms Tan.

“That is the impetus for younger people who tend to like new and more novel things. So are they doing enough? No, because it is a generational thing.”


Mr Pio Parthiban Subramaniam knows that a lack of time to take on monumental tasks of cooking and cleaning for a big family is common among younger people busy at work. (Photo: Courtesy of Betaphats)

A SOCIAL SITUATION

Cook and co-owner of Third & Sixth bistro bar, Mr Pio Parthiban Subramaniam, said growing up in Malaysia and Singapore has made him realise how tough it can be for some families to keep cooking at home.

“When we were young and could not afford to eat out, we would cook at home,” said the 33-year-old Singaporean PR.

“Lower income families would often cook at home and eat at home together. More modern families would tend to go out to eat.

“But today, cooking at home is not as cheap as it used to be compared with eating out. And it can take a lot of effort to shop, prepare meals, cook and then clean. Younger people who are working long hours do not have time for that, so a lot of traditional recipes and techniques are lost,” said Mr Subramaniam, who encourages families to stay home and cook together nonetheless.

It is a tall order, according to Mr Seetoh, who pointed out that people have lost the touch of cooking at home. But there are a few who make it a lifelong journey to keep tradition alive, he added.

“People are no longer cooking; people are ‘lifestyling’ now, ‘affluencing’ if you must, but there is a pool of people in our younger generation who are breaking trends and getting out of the corporate buzz, and hopping on this culinary journey because it means something to them for one reason or another.”


Madam Nazli Anwari says that her brothers and her make an effort to keep their parents' Eurasian and Malay food heritage alive. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

HERITAGE FOOD MAKES A FAMILY INTERESTING

Like Mr Pereira, Madam Nazli Anwari is a firm believer that all families should keep a record of their family’s traditional dishes, in whatever iteration they have grown up with.

Madam Nazli, who is of Pakistani and Eurasian descent, takes an interest in Malay culture and food, while her brothers, she said, are keepers of her mother’s Eurasian recipes which have been passed down to their spouses.

The 64-year-old, who used to work as a garden designer, horticulturist and plant medicine therapist for over 30 years, said that preserving a family’s food heritage is a labour of love.


Madam Nazli Anwari's nasi ulam. The kerabu salad is accompanied with rice dyed blue using the blue pea vine. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

“Traditional food is a country's identity. So, yes, it will be something I would encourage, seeing how few families actually eat together, or have no food tradition and heritage,” said Madam Nazli, whose traditional favourite is the rare Malay dish, nasi ulam, or rice with herbs, which uses two herbs – the medicinal gotu kola leaves and laksa leaves.

“My children, especially my son, loved his grandmother's food. He has chosen to consult his auntie for a more authentic version than mine.”


Madam Markamah Abdullah tries her granddaughter's mee rebus. The taste brings back memories of her late husband, who used this original mee rebus recipe.

HELPING GRANDMA’S MEMORY

Despite the effort and the task of cooking original mee rebus at home, Madam Mardyyanah does what she can to keep her family’s culinary traditions alive, having learnt how to make her family’s sardine curry puffs since she was 19.

And Madam Mardyyanah knows when she has done well every time her grandmother’s eyes sparkle when she takes her first sip of mee rebus gravy. Madam Mardyyanah knows that even if it is not quite there, she has succeeded in replicating granddad’s recipe when her grandmother mentions his name while eating, asking if he cooked it.

Reviving A Grandad's Recipe

Mardyyanah Awang hopes to jog her grandma’s ailing memory by attempting her late granddad’s original mee rebus recipe. But will grandma remember? Watch the moving tale tonight, in On The Red Dot, 10pm on MediaCorp Channel 5

Posted by On The Red Dot on Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Her taste buds are okay. I do hope that she can still remember and that the taste of my grandfather’s mee rebus brings back her memories, even if its just one per cent or two per cent,” said Madam Mardyyanah, simmering with hope that this simple, traditional dish kept alive will be the elixir to her grandma’s ailing memory.


The arsenal of ingredients that go into the deceptively simple mee rebus dish.

Atok Bakar’s mee rebus recipe (courtesy of Mardyyanah Awang)

(Serves 4 people)

INGREDIENTS 
For gravy: (To be pounded/blended)
4 onions
6 garlic
1 inch of ginger
A handful of ikan bilis
A handful of dried shrimps
4 stalks of lemongrass
1 inch of galangal 
3 tablespoons of fermented beans
2 tablespoons of curry powder

Tamarind juice
Chopped peanuts
Salt 
Sugar
1 liter of water
Fresh udang geragau (or tiny shrimps) To be fried and set aside

500g of sweet potatoes (boiled, peeled and mashed)
300g of tetelan (or beef flanks)

500grams of Yellow Noodles

GARNISH:
Taupok
Lime
Chinese Celery
Boiled Eggs
Fried Shallots
Green Chillies
Beansprouts

METHOD:

- Boil beef flanks till tender with 1 liter of water together with ginger, garlic and 1 tablespoon of salt. Separate the meat and retain the stock. Dice the meat into small cubes

- Sautee the blended ingredients till fragrant. 
- Add in tamarind juice and beef stock. 
- Add in beef cubes, peanuts, mashed sweet potatoes, salt and sugar. Slow boil till the gravy thickens. 
- Blanch the yellow noodles. Serve with the gravy and garnishing ingredients

Watch Madam Mardyyanah’s story in full on Toggle, and catch Madam Nazli Anwari’s nasi ulam recipe tonight on On The Red Dot, Channel 5, 10pm (GMT +8).