I was a wee lad when my Mother decided that I needed to be sent to live for a few years in the household of my Peranakan Great Grandmother.
I never knew why.
Was I such a rascal that discipline was badly needed? Did she want me to experience the great Peranakan heritage? Or did she have such great foresight and thought that a stint there would teach me to cook, to find my feminine side and be a real man ?
I didn’t ask and won’t ask.
Sometimes mystique is good for the soul.
But I’m glad that she did.
Because everything that I am today is largely because of those 3 formative years which moulded me – my values, my discipline, respecting that line in the sand on what is right and wrong, my sense of family and yes my love of cooking.
My Great Grandmother standing
My Great Grandmother
Yes you heard right. I had a great grandmother who was alive when I was growing up. My mom was orphaned as a very young child and she was brought up by my great grandmother.
Through an arranged marriage, she married my dad when she was 13.
Yes again you heard right. It was that era, she was orphaned, early arranged marriages were not uncommon in rural Indonesia, and my great grandmother decided to arrange her marriage. But even then – 13.
So its really weird. I have grand aunts close to my age and aunties younger than me.
My Great Grandmother is the classic Bibik (traditional female patriarch of a Peranakan household). She wears a sarong most days, ruled the household with an iron fist, and spoke to me in a mixture of the Hokkien dialect and Malay.
Funnily enough all her curse words would all be in Malay. So I picked up a colourful language on the side.
One of her favourite curse words (when she was surprised or when she drops something) was “Oh buay perlei bersa!” (Not sure if I’m remembering the words right). I asked my Grand Uncle once and he said loosely translated it meant “big balls” lol.
The other favourite was “puki mak ” or “your mother’s pussy “. Lol.
“Celaka” or “damn you” punctuated many of her sentences.
I spent many happy days squatting next to my great grandmother while she pounded chilli by hand in the traditional mortar and pestle, a piece of belachan wafting over a wire rack placed over a bed of glowing charcoals.
The belachan will be removed once it was browned and pounded into the chilli and lime leaves to make my favourite food in this world to this day – sambal belachan (chilli with dried prawn paste).
The heavenly smells will fill the house while Ah Boy (in a Peranakan household you are either Ah Boy or Ah Girl no names were needed) squatted expectantly.
Waiting for ?
Once she had removed the pounded sambal, she will spoon a few spoonfuls of steaming freshly cooked white rice into the mortar and pestle and I will “clean it up”. To this day, that is the most delicious dish I can dream about.
Manners maketh a man
The Peranakan household is a strict one. Kids were taught to always have their manners in check, respect for elders was paramount, you did what you were told and “hold that lip”.
One of the delightful traditions of a Peranakan household was that before you could sit down to your meal at the dinner table, you had to hunt down every adult in the family (yes wherever they are in the house) and tell them to “come and eat”.
You will be termed a “Kurang Ajar ” or “ill bred ” if you were interrogated and it was discovered that you missed out any one adult. And you had to stop eating and go finish that task before you were allowed to continue eating.
The other delightful custom (I’m not sure if it is a Peranakan custom or just my great grandmother’s) is that when a male comes into the house, they must be offered a cup of coffee promptly.
I recall that when suitors of my grand aunts came to the house and was waiting, my great grandmother would go nuts if she comes into the living room and observed that they didn’t have a cup of coffee in their hand. Everyone (all my grand aunts and myself included) would be chastised and taken to task soundly.
And what was cute was that when I came of age (when I was serving national service) and went back to visit, she afforded me that courtesy and would chastise my grand aunts loudly for not fetching me coffee, or if she saw me in the kitchen helping myself to coffee.
Culinary Institute of Peranakan
My great grandmother would give me verbal instructions and send me marketing.
There was this corner shop about 200 metres from her house that was like a mini market. I would be given instructions and be dispatched to go marketing by myself.
So she taught me the name of the fish she wanted me to buy, to ask the uncle at the stall where that type of fish were in the piles of seafood, and then I had to “select the fish”.
This means I had to use my hands to open up the flap at the chin of the fish and inspect the gills.
Bright red and healthy looking gills would mean that the fish was fresh. A darkish dull colour – avoid.
“Ah Boy go buy ladies fingers today. Make sure it is of a bright colour. And test it by bending the tip – it should be supple and easily breakable “.
So as the amused vegetable seller chuckled, I was the 9 year old boy bending each of the tips of the ladies fingers (or okra) studiously, oblivious amongst a sea of menopausal aunties who were smiling indulgently and approvingly.
And preparing to arrange my marriage to their daughters.
So did I learn cooking from my great grandmother ? Sadly no, but it probably piqued my interest while I was living there.
But I had to do my share of the household chores and go marketing so definitely I was discovering my feminine side.
Itek or Ayam Sio
One of my favourite dishes which she cooked was this peranakan dish called Itek (duck) or Ayam (chicken) Sio.
It was duck or chicken marinated in this aromatic sauce of pounded shallots, tamarind juice (soaked and seeds removed) and ketumbar (coriander seeds) that were dry fried, and pounded.
Years after my great grandmother passed, I asked my grand aunt for the recipe and tried cooking it. It tasted ok but it was nowhere close to her version as I remembered it to be (as it should be).
But it was and is a dish of great nostalgia for me and it transports me to a happy time when I was Ah Boy.
This weekend, we had a CNY pot luck party at Kuan’s house and when I asked her what she would like me to cook, she chose Itek Sio.
So here are some pictures of my Itek and Ayam Sio.
I trawled through the internet and this was the closest recipe to what was whispered to me by my grand aunts so you may want to follow this
Ayam Sioh (Chicken with Tamarind and Coriander)
(serves 4 – 6)
Recipe from Traditional Malaysian Cuisine
1 large chicken – cut into 4 pieces
10 shallots – pounded finely
1 tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp thick soy sauce
1 Tbsp salt
10 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp coriander powder – roasted
250g tamarind – mixed with 1 cup of water and strained
2 Tbsp salt dissolved in water
1) Combine coriander powder, sugar salt, soy sauce, pepper and shallots with the tamarind juice and stir well.
2) Wash the chicken in the salt water and remove the chicken. Add the chicken to the ingredients in (1). Leave chicken to marinade overnight in the refrigerator.
3) Boil the chicken in the marinade for 20 minutes over medium heat.
4) Turn the chicken over, reduce heat and boil for another 20 minutes.
5) Remove and serve warm with white rice.
I am a lazy cook so it goes without saying that I take lots of shortcuts.
For example, my great grandmother would stand at the stove and dry fry the coriander seeds over a low flame for at least half an hour, until the pungent aroma of the coriander seeds permeated the whole house.
She would turn in her grave today if she knew what I do supposedly “following ” her recipe.
“Celakak, this Kurang Arja Ah Boy! He doesnt fry any coriander seeds and use packet coriander powder??!! Puki Mak!!”
Sorry Great Grandma 😬