Cookbooks tell personal stories. While many women left precious little behind, often their cookbooks provide enough to catch a glimpse of the person. In evocative culinary memoirs composed of directions for cooking, accounts, textual fragments, marginalia, and paper ephemera stored between the pages of a book, women inscribed themselves in their recipe texts as testimonies to their existence.
— Janet Theophano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote (New York: Palgrave, 2002)
My grandmother was born in Singapore in 1915 and her name was Nice, pronounced as in ‘you are such a nice person’, not as in Nice, France. All her life, until she passed away at age 92, grandma was a dedicated homemaker and loved cooking and baking.
“Ma Ma”, as I called her (the Cantonese manner of addressing one’s paternal grandmother), left behind notebooks full of handwritten recipes, mostly Straits Chinese, nonya dishes learnt painstakingly from her mother-in-law, or western-style cakes and pastries which she had developed a penchant for in YWCA cooking classes in the 1930s. She later conducted cooking classes for the YWCA herself, one of which you can see in the photograph in this blog’s header.
Many people have asked for my grandmother’s recipes, seeking to rediscover that authentic nonya flavour. However, in the course of going through these cooking notes and reading more about food history, I’ve realised just how difficult it is to recreate the taste of foods in bygone eras. Most cooks in the past worked from sheer experience, not written recipes, and they themselves hardly made notes. Perhaps it’s because our local recipes have always been passed down in an oral tradition through the different generations of females in a family, so there was no practice of writing them down. Even when cooking notes were made, the imprecision of the quantities or recording them in terms of prices (which have been subject to a huge amount of inflation in 50 years!) have made them hard to follow in later years. [N.B.: very interesting information on interpreting and adapting old recipes at Foodtimeline.org as well this Australian food history blogger’s comments on recreating grandmother’s ‘pinch of this and fistful of that’, or as we say here in Singapore/Malaysia, the ‘agak-agak‘ method of cooking.]
It’s taken me some time to even figure out what the ingredients are – as you can read on the ‘Unfamiliar Ingredients‘ page. But identifying them isn’t the whole story: the way our foods are grown and produced in the 21st century aren’t the same as back in 1957 – were they all ‘organic’ in those days :)? The cooking implements we use today are different as well, and it doesn’t take much to realise that food cooked over a charcoal stove in an iron pan is quite different from using a non-stick Tefal pan on an electric or induction hob!
So I’d like to share my grandmother’s cooking notes with you here firstly as pieces of nostalgia, and only secondly as a cooking guide. To cook from them, you’ll have to experiment, perhaps do some additional research, then adapt them to suit your own tastes and in time, create your own culinary family tradition, I hope :).
From another perspective, my grandmother’s recipe notebooks are historical documents, revealing the cosmopolitan nature of English-speaking Asian society in Malaya (who were schooled in immaculate penmanship!) during the late colonial period, through an international taste in food and the linguistic diversity in names of ingredients. These recipes illustrate cooking methods and ingredients in vogue at the time, which were partly the result of food technology innovation and the marketing of consumer food products.
My grandmother’s notebooks span the period from just before 1957, the year in which the Federation of Malaya gained independence, to c.2005, an alternative record of Singapore/Malayan history from the private sphere of domestic food practices.
Please leave a comment when you visit, especially if you’ve tried the recipes! You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(My grandmother, Nice, is standing at the back on the extreme right.)
(Grandma Nice, early 1930s. Read more here.)