SINGAPORE: Ask the Lim family to describe Madam Mary Teo and you sense the hesitation in the air. They erupt in cheeky sniggers, and another 10 seconds passes before someone volunteers an answer.
“Good food. Fierce and scary.”
“Strong willed. Bossy.”
“Stubborn. Can be a little unreasonable sometimes.”
Mdm Teo, who is also affectionately known as Mama (short for grandma) in the household, is everything you would expect in a Peranakan matriarch – an exceptional cook, highly disciplined though at times overbearing, and a giver of tough love.
“She had this collection of canes when we were younger, and she would chase me around the house,” said granddaughter Anne-Marie Lim. “I was quite a naughty kid. I’d try to outrun her, but she’d still manage to catch me.”
“It was quite traumatising,” added the 24-year-old who is a producer with CNA Insider.
The 83-year-old matriarch’s no-nonsense attitude can also be observed once you enter her bedroom.
“You open her cupboard, all her kebayas are neatly ironed. All her clothes are neatly folded,” said daughter-in-law Mrs Anna Lim, 58, whose whole family lives under one roof with Mama.
“I think she has learnt that she cannot change us to be as neat as her. She has learnt to let it go.”
A LIFE OF INVENTION
The kitchen, however, is Mama’s true sacred area - and that is perhaps the hardest thing for her to let go.
Entrusted to cook for her family of eight when she was just 12 years old, Mama had to grow up quickly.
“Because olden times, all the girls don’t work right?” said Mdm Teo. “I didn’t finish my studies, I left school when my mother fell sick. I had to do the marketing, I even did the washing and ironing you know?
“Everything was pushed to me.”
As difficult as life was, the kitchen became the place where her creativity flourished. Even though her mother taught her several simple nyonya dishes, it was not enough for Mama. She said:
My mother didn’t cook mutton curry. She didn’t cook rendang. I think, think, think, I do myself. Because if you have the interest in cooking, you can invent. You can agak-agak.
Mrs Lim can vouch for that. When the family goes to a restaurant for dinner, she says, Mama is able to tell the ingredients that went into a dish. She will then try to recreate it and the product is always “very good”.
RETIREMENT AT AGE 79
But due to her deteriorating health, Mama had to hang up her apron four years ago.
“People retire 55, I retire 79. In the year 2012, the mother (Mrs Lim) take over,” said Mdm Teo.
For someone who has been cooking for her family her entire life, it was a huge change. But for her daughter-in-law, meeting Mama’s expectations was an even greater challenge.
In Mama’s own words, this is what it takes to make a good dish: “You must have patience. You must have skill. If you got no patience, the dish will go haywire.”
Mrs Lim admitted:
When I married (into the family), I knew that I would never meet her standards. So I did not step into the kitchen. Barely.
If every outstanding dish begins with good ingredients, it is no wonder Mama is extremely particular about marketing – even in her self-proclaimed retirement.
Said Mrs Lim: “She used to go marketing every day and when we first started taking over, she insisted that we do it at least twice a week, because both of us are working.”
Mama’s son, Mr Andrew Lim, 60, chimed in: “And then we got it down to once a week.”
Daily marketing is essential to Mama because it ensures that ingredients are constantly fresh. Pointing to a batch of kuning fish that was bought just the day before, she lamented about the colour of the gills: “You see, yesterday very fresh right? Today a bit pale.”
And then there is Mama’s obsession with quality – even down to insisting on specific brands, cuts of meat and even dish washer liquid. She has earned her superstar status at a wet market nearby.
The store holders will know what she likes, so all I have to do is say, “Mama’s pork” - and they will know that it is a certain spare ribs.
“Or, we go to the dried goods stall-holder, whom we call Uncle Dry, and he will tell us we need this brand because it’s the one that my mother-in law-uses,” said Mrs Lim, who has taken to creating a spreadsheet to ensure the correct ingredients are bought in the proper quantities each week.
Watch: Learn how to be like Mama (3:26)
COOKING: MAMA’S EXPRESSION OF LOVE
As intimidating as she seems, it is through her discipline and dedication that Mama’s love for her family shines through.
Till today, she sews pajamas for her children and grandchildren on her old manual foot-pedal sewing machine – a gift from her mother when she got married. In her cupboard lie several stacks of neatly folded batik-print pajamas, sewn at a rate faster than they can be worn.
Cooking remains a part of her weekly routine as well (despite her “retirement”), because she insists on cooking porridge for her husband, who has dementia.
The rest of the family will never forget the times when Mama was in better health. “When I was in army, no matter how much weight I lost, I’d come back over the weekend and gain everything back because Mama would make sure that I was very well fed,” said grandson Andre Lim, 30.
“All her specialities would come out.”
Younger brother Anton, 26, recalled his student days: “She would make ginseng for us. She would say, ‘Drink this before you sleep, then when you wake up, you can do your exam properly’.”
Everyone also speaks fondly of a “food schedule” where Mama would cook a specific dish on each day of the week. Sundays was for special requests, and mee siam was a favourite.
“Her mee siam is really second to none. Because of her, I cannot eat mee siam outside,” said Andre.
Anne-Marie added: “It’s a lot of work and we don’t really see it. We just wake up to food and we just come home from school, everything is on the table.
If we eat dinner outside or have random plans, the food gets wasted and she would be really upset.
Mrs Lim interprets Mama’s petulance as feelings of loneliness, which she doesn’t know how to express. “Mama expresses herself through food, through cooking for people. And she will go through all the trouble to do it,” she said.
NASI LEMAK, NYONYA STYLE
In July this year, Mama came out of retirement to cook one of her creations specially for CNA Insider: Nyonya-style nasi lemak.
How is it different from the typical nasi lemak most Singaporeans are used to? It is all in the fish. Mama had observed how sweet chilli was usually added right on top of the fried kuning fish – and she had a stroke of genius.
“I cannot explain but I just thought my rempah with the fish would be nicer,” she said proudly. Rempah - a fragrant paste consisting of small red onions, lemongrass, candlenuts, dried red chilli and belachan - is the backbone of Peranakan cooking.
The fish is coated evenly in the paste and left to sit overnight, “so that all the zhap (sauce) will go in”, said Mama.
Watch: How it’s done by Mama (3:33). The full recipe here.
As the Lim family sat down to enjoy the kuning fish, which was paired with freshly cooked coconut rice and otah, everyone sang praises of Mama’s cooking. The chef was not able to eat with everyone because of her strict diet. But she walked around the table to survey reactions.
“Good or not?”
“Very nice la, Mama.”
The last time she cooked her well-loved nasi lemak was four years ago, before she retired. Looking at her loved ones mopping up the rempah, Mama said triumphantly: “You see how many years I never make nasi lemak? I still can remember.”
Satisfied, she retreated back to her room for a well-deserved rest.
This is part of a CNA Insider series on vanishing home recipes (read more here).
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