When there was no money, ikan bilis was ‘like gold’: The art of humble cooking

When there was no money, ikan bilis was ‘like gold’: The art of humble cooking

Families can afford much better ingredients today than in the past. But as these ‘poor’ dishes disappear, are we also losing a rich heritage of family stories? The second in a series on vanishing home recipes.

One widow's dedication to raising her 8 children single-handedly, and on meals made with love out of the humblest of ingredients. These days, they keep her legacy alive by getting together weekly to cook the recipes she left them. Read more of the story here. This is the second in a series on vanishing home recipes. 

SINGAPORE: At the forested end of Fairways Drive near the old turf club, a long way from the bustle of Bukit Timah, lies a cluster of dilapidated longhouses in vacant, eerie silence.

A few decades ago, this was home for the Thanaletchmy family and others who worked at the turf club in its racing heyday. “Each house had a kitchen, a hall, one bedroom and one bathroom - and we all managed to squeeze into this small house,” said Mrs G Leela, the fourth of eight siblings.   

Poor as they were, those were their happiest times. “The love was there. And the neighbours were all so friendly. We even shared our food,” Mrs Leela recalled.

There was a reason why mealtimes were an almost sacred event: It was difficult to get food where they lived, a long and inconvenient walk from the wet market – especially when it rained and the area flooded.

Ikan Bilis Curry 2: Old Pic Leela and Suseela
Mrs G Leela and her sister Mrs K Suseela in front of the quarters at the old Bukit Timah Turf Club.

Easy curries, mostly made with homegrown vegetables, formed the bulk of their meals.

And as a treat, they would sometimes walk out to the Mama shop to buy dried fish for one of their favourite dishes - ikan bilis curry (karuvadu curry in Tamil).


This dish, which is still cooked in their household today, tells a story of tougher times.

When their father was 36 years old, he died of tuberculosis. Their mother, Mrs V Thanaletchmy, was just 32, and had to raise eight children on her own, including a 3-month-old infant.

“My mother was the only one who looked after us. Money was so hard to come by. Whatever she cooked, we just ate,” said Mrs Leela. 

Sometimes we only ate plain porridge. My mother would buy a coconut for 5 cents, squeeze out the milk, pluck two pandan leaves from outside, and put it in the porridge.

"But it tasted so good.”

Ikan Bilis Curry 8: Old photo entire family in the 80's
Mrs Thanaletchumi (second from right) and her family in the 1980s.

The ikan bilis curry was a product of circumstance: Getting to the wet market from where they lived was a hassle.

“Last time Bukit Timah Road was very small. When it rained a little bit, the whole place got flooded. Then Saturdays and Sundays were the horse racing days, so it would be jammed all the way to Tekka,” said Mrs Leela.

On top of that, there was no refrigeration to keep fresh meat, so they cooked anything they could get from provision shops along Sixth Avenue – ikan bilis, canned sardines, and other varieties of dried fish.

“Last time, Sixth Avenue was all kampongs you know? Even got factories!” said Mrs Leela.

Ikan Bilis Curry 4: Leela and sis cooking
Mrs Leela and her sister, Mrs K Mangalam, watching over their ikan bilis curry.


The older sisters, Mrs K Mangalam, 70, and Mrs K Suseela, 67, helped with the cooking when their mother was at work.

They recall what it was like preparing this dish. “Last time, a bag of ikan bilis was just 10 cents, you know. We had to peel and clean it one by one! It was a lot of work. Back then, we could do it. But now, no time,” said Mrs Suseela.

Then, with vegetables that they grew around the house and three boiled eggs, they threw everything in a pot for their signature curry that could feed the family of eight children.

WATCH: How it's still being made today (2:35). Click here for the full recipe.

My mother would split the eggs into small pieces, and give us one piece each. It wasn’t enough – but we saved it like gold on the plate.

“She would say ‘eat this vegetable, it’s good for you’, and we would eat. That's why we older people eat our vegetables – not like children nowadays,”  said Mrs Leela.

Mrs Thanaletchmy died of a sudden heart attack while at work at the turf club. She was just 53.

“We were so sad. She loved us so much – she lived for us,” said Mrs Leela. 

Ikan Bilis Curry 6: Eggs in curry
In the past, three eggs had to be split among 9 people in the family.


Bonded by these unforgettable memories, the Thanaletchmy siblings still make the effort now to get together at the weekends, even though they have their own families and live in different parts of the island. 

And when they’re together, they cook just like how their mother taught them – dosai made from scratch, accompanied by freshly made chutney.

The difference is that these days, their ikan bilis curry comes with an abundance of eggs and vegetables, and a generous assortment of dried fish for extra taste.

Ikan Bilis Curry 10: Curry Veggies
The vegetables that go into the curry.

But it’s a struggle to get the new generation to appreciate dishes like these. “Now they want burgers, nuggets, sausage, all the fast food. I learnt to cook pasta because of my grandchildren,” said Mrs Suseela.

Mrs Leela, meawhile, is keeping a good old kampong tradition alive. Her neighbour Mrs Nageswari, 41, who lives a few floors above her said: “Sometimes, I would come home from work and on my dining table, there would already be dinner prepared by Aunty.”


But with no one from her own family to pass her recipes to – none of Ms Leela’s children are interested – how long can this spirit of cooking and sharing be sustained?

And without it, what will the family resort to for food? “More coffee shops la!” remarked Mrs Leela.

“My three boys eat out all the time. Mothers used to teach their daughters to cook for their husbands. Nowadays, no. I think it’s better like that,” she added.

Ikan Bilis Curry 5: Leela tasting curry
Mrs Leela checks checks to see if her curry is salty enough.

And yet, she can’t deny what’s at the heart of her close-knit family. “My children and grandchildren come home every Sunday because they know I have cooked all their favourite dishes.

"This is what family is like – cooking brings us together.” 

That’s something important in Hindu beliefs. Said Mrs Leela: “When we do prayers for (deceased) parents during Deepavali, the priest says that if the children are not together, their soul will cry.”

In that case, the late Mrs Thanaletchmy would be smiling indeed, to see her legacy living on.

For the full recipe of Mrs Thanaletchmy’s ikan bilis curry and homemade dosai with chutney, click here.

This is the second in a series on vanishing home recipes. Read: What we lose, when family recipes vanish; and, Mrs Lam’s handmade Hakka noodles.

Know an old-time home cook we could feature? Contact CNA Insider at Facebook.com/CNAInsider, or Lam Shushan on Twitter @ShuShanCNA. 

Source: CNA/yv