SINGAPORE: At 1.85m tall and built for power, Mr Muhammad Azrie cuts an imposing figure beside his grandmother, who barely reaches his broad shoulders.
But in her kitchen, he is like a humble commis chef - quietly obeying the orders of ‘head chef’ Nenek (Malay for grandmother) as they make her rendition of nasi ayam done with a Middle Eastern twist for this evening’s Iftar (breaking of fast).
It’s a recipe that grandma Madam Habibah Osman, 71, has proudly handed down to her 29-year-old grandson. “He’s a good boy, always helps me,” she said.
For all his alpha male appearance, Mr Azrie, a strength and conditioning coach, isn’t the traditional husband who’s content to let his wife do the cooking. Indeed, most days will find the father of one at the kitchen stove whipping up something for the family – his expression of love to them.
He believes his passion for the kitchen arts was cultivated from young by the women in his family.
NENEK’S LESSONS FROM THE KAMPUNG
As a kid, afternoons were spent at his grandmother’s home in the block across from his. Mr Azrie recalls how it was “like a restaurant” with the variety of dishes she made each day.
“The moment I got back I would ask: ‘Nenek, masak apa?’ (grandma, what’s cooking?). Every time she cooked I would stand beside her to observe. That’s how I got the tips and techniques,” he said.
Mdm Habibah is a storehouse for a rich heritage of recipes picked up over the years, starting from her childhood days in her Geylang Serai kampong.
“I had so many neighbours around me, and we had a communal kitchen. I would ask around to learn and share recipes. During the fasting month we would all share food. It was great,” she said in Malay.
They cooked dishes like dried squid in sambal and charcoal-grilled fish, also Javanese dishes like sambal godok, botok-botok and ikan pais - mostly cheap seafood dishes that were easily available at that time.
It was only on Hari Raya that her father would buy meat for the family, a luxury they could afford only once a year. “Now you can eat things like chicken every day. You couldn’t do that before,” said Mdm Habibah.
Even cold drinks were considered treats, since no one owned fridges. During Hari Raya, someone would come around selling ice in big blocks.
"We would cut the ice into smaller pieces, and cut pineapples, put some sugar, then put the ice cubes in a drink. We would make a lot of it to share."
“Back then things were very difficult. We really celebrated Hari Raya. Kids now are different,” she added.
What hasn’t changed over the years is her joy in cooking - especially if it brings people together. “If I have a recipe, I want everybody to know, to teach them all and share with them,” nenek said.
THE DISH THAT BRINGS BUSLOADS
Back in the kitchen, Mr Azrie lifts up the huge wok while his nenek scoops out every drop of the buttery onion-and-tomato sauce into the pot of rice that forms the base of their nasi ayam.
This dish, a must-have during Hari Raya in this household, often leaves guests “pondering over” its origin, said Mr Azrie.
The chicken, which is marinated with Middle Eastern spices such as cinnamon and garam masala, is deep fried in the typical nasi ayam fashion, but is then thrown into a pot of rice like a dum biryani.
“I like it when people eat it and can’t figure out what they are eating, but they say it’s nice and ask for the recipe. I get a sense of happiness that we did our best,” said Mr Azrie.
Watch: How nenek makes it (2:56)
As the oldest in the family, Mdm Habibah gets busloads of visitors on Hari Raya. Despite her age, she tries her best to feed the hundreds who look forward to eating her nasi ayam.
“Hari Raya, must cook. If I don’t cook, the guests will ask ‘why never cook?’”
But Mr Azrie’s involvement in the kitchen did not just stem from curiosity - it was also something that developed out of a sense of responsibility.
At the age of 13, Mr Azrie, along with his younger brothers, started helping out in the kitchen to take some of the load off their mother - who on top of holding a full-time job, was expected to cook and clean for the family.
“She would send us a long message with instructions to cut, chop, fry… so at that age we were already struggling to cut onions as tears came out from our eyes. But no cook, no food. Simple,” he said.
I saw how difficult it was for her, so I made a promise to my mother that when I got married, I would not treat my wife like that.
Today, he does most of the cooking for his wife, Nur Shuhadah, and four-year-old son, Muhammad Zulfiqar, as evidenced by the pictures he puts up on Facebook - a different dish each day.
“I want to inspire other men to help their wives and mums in the kitchen. I want to break the social norm in the Malay community, where women do the cooking and the men expect it from them,” he said.
Ms Nur Shuhadah said: "I'm thankful because it's not every day that you come across a man who helps you with the housework, does the cooking."
Then there is the more personal reason for wanting to do this. Mr Azrie was diagnosed with cancer when he was 22, and had to undergo six chemotherapy and 17 radiation therapy sessions that lasted one and half years.
It was a huge shock to the family, especially since he was a fit boy who even had a place on the national Silat team from 2002 to 2004. “My mum was shattered because she had heard stories of people who got cancer and just died,” he said.
“When I had my therapy, I couldn’t talk because I could feel the medicine travelling around my body. When I walked without shoes, I felt as though my bones were touching the ground. Even with good food, I tasted nothing.
You get depressed easily, but I managed to tackle it because of my family support. They kept me happy, in a good mental state.
He says it was his wife (girlfriend then), mother and siblings who were his “pillars of support” - so cooking is one way he chooses to thank them for pulling him through. (He has been cancer-free now for nearly eight years, “Alhamdulillah”, he reveals.)
But as fervent a cook as he is, even he admits that cooking Malay dishes can be “leceh” (troublesome), with the huge variety of spices used and the intense preparation. “You have to fry them, and it takes time, then the whole house will be in a mess. The smell, the odor, the splattering.”
So besides learning the traditional Malay recipes, he tends to cook a variety of cuisines, from Vietnamese to Japanese to local favourites like salted egg crab - which his nenek also enjoys.
“Good lah, we need to change for our tastebuds, or we get sick of eating the same type of food,” said Mdm Habibah.
EATING IS ABOUT FAMILY
As break fast time draws near, members of Mr Azrie’s extended family arrive with more dishes - desserts like pisang palak pecah (caramelised bananas) and jackfruit pengat (jackfruit in coconut milk).
Mdm Habibah’s nasi ayam Lebanon has been nicely laid out on big communal plates known as dulang. She has even whipped up a dahl curry made from sup tulang (ox bone broth) as well as some achar timun (pickle made with cucumber) to accompany the dish.
Once the sunset prayer call is observed, the feast begins. While everyone starts with dried dates, Mr Azrie chugs down an ice-cold drink instead - respite from the day spent cooking in a hot kitchen.
“When you cook nice dishes, the whole family looks forward to breaking fast together, and we will take the effort to come home before sunset. That’s the shiok part,” he said. His nenek feels the same. She said:
I like to see people, especially my grandchildren, eat my food. I feel happy and I won’t feel so lonely.
Indeed Mr Azrie makes it a point to visit her at least once a week. All he has to do is give her a call in the morning, and come evening, there would be a delicious spread waiting for him.
“I would like to have my grandmother’s cooking, her legacy, to be part of something that we can look back on even when she’s gone,” he said. “Cooking is a skill and knowledge, and I would love for my son to have that.”
This is part of CNA Insider’s series on vanishing home recipes. Click here for more stories and recipes, such as handmade hakka noodles, ikan billis curry and Eurasian sugee cake.
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