SINGAPORE: It’s 10.30am on a Monday, and Mdm Tseng Gek Luan is patiently answering our questions about how she got started in cooking.
But then her telephone rings, and the 84-year-old breaks off the interview abruptly with a smile. “It’s him calling,” she says excitedly as she walks away, catching us off guard.
Moments later, she’s laughing and chatting on the phone with “Ah Boy” – her 32-year-old grandson Perry Yeo, who lives in New York some 15,000km away.
The Monday morning call is a routine they have developed over the years as Perry ventured abroad to study and work.
It was after his first long trip abroad – an exchange programme in Amsterdam during his undergraduate days – that he decided to phone home more regularly.
“My grandma is quite old, and there were times when I called back and learnt she had been sick,” he said. “I realised that every time I call her she’s really happy, so I just thought if I could make it a more routine thing, she would have something to look forward to every week.”
These days, the weekly calls, which can last up to an hour, are an important time for grandma and grandson to catch up – and also for Perry to learn her recipes.
Today, it’s one of the family’s favourite dishes: orh luat, or oyster omelette, except with Ah Ma’s own clammy spin.
FOOD FROM THE SEA
The family recipe was handed down to Mdm Tseng by her mother, who taught her how to cook for the family at the age of 10.
At the time, they had just moved from China to Singapore, and had no money or means to get fresh oysters. But as they lived in a kampung near the sea, fresh lala (clams) were plentiful and free.
“We dug them out (from the sand), and could fry them and cook them with anything. Last time it was very good, no need to buy,” said Mdm Tseng.
What was at first a free substitute has now become a key and preferred ingredient in Mdm Tseng’s omelette recipe – because even though she can afford them now, fresh oysters are still hard to come by, and she dislikes using frozen ingredients in her recipes.
As she took a packet of frozen oysters out of her freezer to show to us, she complained: “These are so hard, how can they be nice to eat?”
Her family prefers her clam omelette to the traditional orh luat as well. Said Perry’s mother, Cynthia Koh:
She just makes it better, and you won’t find this dish anywhere else! I think this must be the only family that makes it.
The extended family typically gathers to catch up and enjoy grandma’s cooking on Sundays. “Now that she’s older, my mother doesn’t really eat that much,” said Sharon Yeo, Mdm Tseng’s youngest daughter. “But she still likes cooking for everyone.”
Indeed, ask Mdm Tseng to take a break from the cooking and eat her own dishes, and you’ll get the prompt reply: “No, you eat! I’ll make more for you!”
Watch: How Ah Ma makes it (3:00)
GRANDMA’S FISH WISDOM
With their parents busy working, Perry and his younger brother Jovan, 23, were brought up by Mdm Tseng – and have long been pampered by her delicious creations.
Even now, Perry can rattle off the dishes he’s grown to know and love so well: Braised pork belly, black pepper pork chop, popiah, ngoh hiang, herbal chicken… and especially for him, fish.
“She would do marketing every morning and she buy me a fish.
She believes that eating fish will make me smarter, so that’s why she actually attributes my good results to all the fish that she’s cooked for me,
he said with a laugh. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Perry went on to get his MBA at Boston University, and is now working in banking and finance.
He considers her dishes “Teochew-style with some Peranakan influences”, which makes them all the more special. Her black pepper chicken recipe, for example, makes use of buah keluak, more commonly seen in Peranakan dishes.
Mdm Tseng says it’s because her mother was a helper with a Baba household after coming over to Singapore. The family taught her how to cook some of their dishes, and she incorporated some of their techniques and ingredients into her own cooking style, which was passed down to Mdm Tseng.
Said Perry, who wrote to CNA Insider nominating his grandma for the Vanishing Home Recipes series: “It’s quite unique though, like you can’t really find whatever she cooks outside. It’s quite different.”
COOKING LESSONS OVER THE PHONE
Growing up, he spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen watching grandma cook, but never had any real need to cook for himself, given how easy it was to buy food.
It was only after he went overseas and started to miss the taste of home, that Perry decided to learn how to cook in earnest.
Prior to moving to the US to work, he spent a few months with his grandma, filming and taking photos and notes of her making his favourite dishes. Once there, he continued to ask her for recipes over the phone.
“Somehow when she explains (the recipe), I can picture it in my mind easily,” Perry said. “Maybe because I watched her cook since I was young.”
And Mdm Tseng also knows her grandson all too well. Said Perry:
Sometimes it’s funny that she can sense what I have a craving for. She’ll call me, ‘Hey, how about you try this dish?’ I’m like, huh, how did you know I’m thinking of this?
“I mean, she’s been cooking for me for at least 20 over years… so she knows what I like to eat.”
Today, Perry cooks regularly, and sends photos of his dishes via WhatsApp to his aunt Sharon, who shows them to Mdm Tseng.
But he still struggles to recreate the exact flavours of her dishes. Perry even went so far as to buy a traditional wok – the same type as the one his grandma has been using for the past 50 years.
“There’s just still a little bit that is lacking… It’s closer now, but yeah, it’s still different,” he said.
RECIPES LIKE HEIRLOOMS
But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s that Perry still doesn’t cook whenever he comes back to Singapore.
He said with a grin: “Before I go back, I’ll call her and I’ll give her a whole list of foods I want to eat. Then she’ll start planning. She’ll get my aunt to buy all the different ingredients.”
After the lavish dinners, grandma and grandson often will retire to Mdm Tseng’s room to have their own private time away from the rest of the family. There, Perry recounted, they’ll lie side by side on her bed – the same one he used to sleep on as a child – and catch up with each other.
The physical distance hasn’t lessened the closeness of their relationship, especially since food one thing they share a bond over.
Describing the recipes she learnt from her mother as “heirlooms” which she is now passing on to her grandson, Mdm Tseng said: “I’m happy he learns from me.”
This is part of a series on vanishing home recipes (read more here).
Know an old-time home cook we could feature? Contact us at Facebook.com/CNAInsider, or Lam Shushan on Twitter @ShuShanCNA