SINGAPORE: When I was a child, my mother used to say that I took after my father’s family from Malaysia, and my sister was more like hers - because while my sis preferred to “jiak kantang” (literally, eat potato, or Western food), I would gladly gobble down any Hakka food that my grandmother cooked whenever we visited her in Batu Pahat, Johor.
Thus I became known as the Batu girl.
But as much as I liked her food, I dreaded having to leave the comforts of Singapore each time for my father’s childhood home, where we had to shower with a pail and rats scurried along the open drains. Because of that, I didn't want to be the 'Batu girl', and I decided that I didn’t like my grandmother’s food anymore.
Then in the early 2000s, my grandmother moved to Singapore. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week, but I didn’t get any closer to her - partly because she speaks Hakka and Mandarin, and I am proficient in neither.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to really bond with her. My father had passed away after a difficult battle with cancer, and suddenly, that void in our lives brought us closer.
She would say, “I want to see you because it’s like looking at my son”, and sometimes, I would catch glimpses of my father in her too.
I wanted to make up for those years when I denied her food - so I started eating everything that she put in front of me, just like those times in Batu Pahat. Cooking was her way of showing that she loved us, so it seemed the most natural way to reciprocate - nothing pleased her more than emptied plates and full bellies.
Once we established this understanding, I thought that learning how to cook from her would be the next step. But she would never agree to teach me anything.
“Too much work,” she always said.
Still I would go over to her house anyway, to watch her cook as she told me stories about my dad. I would shoot home videos of her, like this one below in 2014. "My grand-daughter is so strange," she said, baffled by my interest in cooking.
THE BASICS OF HAKKA COOKING
There are few better examples of a labour of love than Hakka cooking.
Common dishes like Hakka Niang Dou Fu and Wu De Ban (commonly known as abacus seeds) require a ridiculous amount of preparation.
But my grandma would gladly slog in the kitchen for days over just one dish that would be devoured by the family in minutes.
Why she thought this way about food, I only began to understand recently when Nai Nai, as we affectionately call her, finally agreed to teach me one of the basic recipes, Ke Jia Mian (handmade Hakka noodles) - a simple meal made of wheat flour and minced meat.
As my cousins and I soon found out, making the noodles was a tedious process. We watched as our grandmother’s hands moved slowly through the flour and water, mixing and kneading in small batches until she created the perfect balls of dough.
“Not too much force or you will hurt the dough,” she warned.
WATCH: How it’s done grandma’s way (3:13)
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With firm but gentle hands, she flattened each ball into thin discs with perfect uniformity before they went through her Ampia 150 pasta maker - a machine that has been with her for more than 50 years.
“During the Japanese era, your grandfather and I used a bamboo stick to flatten the dough. He took one end, and I took the other, and we would go 'ngak ngak ngak'. You couldn’t do it without someone else’s help,” she said.
“It’s like relationship-building,” one cousin chimed in.
Nai Nai qualified: “He could do a better job than me - he did the whole process by hand.”
As a young boy, my grandfather had the responsibility of cooking for people in his village in China, I learnt. When he moved to Malaysia in 1936 at the age of 19, he kept his preference for Hakka food.
When he married my grandmother, he made sure she learnt how to cook to his standards dishes like pork stew with beancurd sheets, double-boiled soup tonics, and even home-made rice wine. He was a perfectionist, she said.
He wanted me to take my cooking seriously and would scold me all the time. Sometimes I wouldn't talk to him for days after.
On top of having to meet her husband’s demands, my grandmother also had to feed a family of five children with just $80 every month.
“I had to rack my brains thinking of how I was going to feed the whole family. But I managed, and sometimes I could even save $10,” she said. Prudence is said to be a Hakka trait.
WHEN FOOD WASN’T ABUNDANT
So, it would make sense for a dish like Hakka noodles to be a regular on the dinner table in those days – indeed this night, with 2kg of wheat flour and 1kg of minced meat, we would be feeding 15 people for under $20.
“Mai sayang (don’t waste anything),” Nai Nai said as she picked up the small pieces of dough that came apart, throwing them back into the mixing bowl for the next batch.
WATCH: Grandma's food tells a story of unconditional love and duty (6:02)
Her thriftiness is ingrained, having grown up in an even poorer family: “We didn’t even have rice. We had to grow our own food, and I raised pigs and chickens till they were so big and plump,” she recalled.
Even in her early days of marriage, she rarely got the chance to cook any of my grandfather’s dishes because they stayed in a shared house with other families. Everything she cooked had to be economical and easy to whip up.
One bunch of sweet potato leaves would cost 5 cents. Then we would fry a few eggs from the ducks we kept, and that would be our meal - me, my younger brother, and your grandfather.
“We were so poor back then. You girls have never seen that kind of poverty,” she added.
By now, we had all our dough sheets laid out on the table. It was obvious which were the ones made by grandma, and which were made by us.
“Don’t worry if your dough not nice - for anything that is imperfect, there will always be a remedy. Like make up - if a girl is not beautiful, she just has to put on makeup and she will look nice!” she said, as she loaded the sheets into the pasta machine again.
One last time, she turned the handle of the noodle maker with control, and out came strands of silky golden noodles. Like Rumplestiltskin, she had spun wheat into gold.
“This is a craft. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes very easy. I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years!” she reminded us.
TOO MUCH WORK, BUT...
At 88, Nai Nai is still healthy but her knees are starting to trouble her, so she spends less time in the kitchen these days. Even her food is not quite the same (but she blames it on the ingredients - “Malaysia’s better”, she says).
Do you still like cooking, I asked her. “I’m sick of it. I have been cooking since I was 15,” she said.
That was when I realised that as a wife and a mother, cooking had always been a duty to make sure that no one in the family ever went hungry.
And so, she was reluctant to teach me because she didn’t want her granddaughter to be banished to a kitchen (“so much work,” she repeated), now that there are other ways to make sure your children are fed.
“Women today have earning power. If you don’t have food at home, go to a restaurant. Don’t do what I did - making noodles is beneath you,” she told me.
And yet, she keeps cooking. It may be more common these days for grandparents and parents to give affection in the form of toys and gifts, but in my grandmother’s time, she cooked – and so she won’t stop.
LEGACIES WORTH PRESERVING?
Thanks to Nai Nai, food has always brought us together. That night, as four generations of the family slurped up every last strand of noodle, I wondered: Where would the next generation of our family be without her cooking?
Would they come together as often around the dining table? Would they know where we came from, and the stories of our grandparents that made us the loving family we are today?
Still, Nai Nai doesn’t see it this way. “There’s no use in learning all this. They won’t want this type of food. They would want modern food. The world will be a different place, and we have to advance with it,” she said pragmatically.
The world will change, indeed, but I believe we are all the richer as families when we preserve some legacies that are worth keeping. Which is why as a journalist, I have undertaken to track down and help preserve some vanishing home recipes, starting with my family’s.
If you know an old-timer in your family whose cooking you love, and whose food has meant something special to you, I would love to hear from you. And stay tuned, for more in this new series.
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