To this day, we still eat the same food Mummy used to serve on the table.
Mum was from a Eurasian family steeped in tradition, who took pride in legacy recipes-yet was somewhat unused to food being central to every communal activity in the way that my father’s family lived. The Eurasians found any reason to celebrate but, parties were much more about music, merriment and dancing.
Singing, Dancing & Merriment: A Portuguese Culture
Mum was marrying Baba, the beloved filial son of the family. And Arwah Nenek, a spirited and generous Indonesian matriarch of exacting standards, needed a seamless transition. Apart from Aunty Marianne, Uncle Manaf’s Australian bride of Ukrainian descent (as usual, Uncle Manaf would always be the first to break convention) every other daughter-in-law was a careful family choice who shared a common Banjar ancestry.
And then came Mum..!
Although not quite from a far continent, she may as well have been. In the 60’s, the food a Malay-Indonesian family served at home was as unfamiliar to a Eurasian-Portuguese as was its language and the religion she would embrace. That made Nenek even more
determined. Her dearest son should not have a day go by without his staple cuisine from his favourite kitchen. He who had chosen to further his studies in KL to remain close to his mother, had never been deprived of home cooking for long absent periods unlike Abah Lik who was sent to the UK or Uncle Manaf, to Australia.
And so, in moves the Mum-In-Law with the newlyweds for the next few months. Nothing
like in-house, on site, domestic training! The Mother-in-law’s standards frequently translated to the unattainable but thankfully, Mak Ainah, Baba’s older sister who loved Mum like her own, was always within reach with her encouraging wisdom and heart of gold.
And so, thanks to a combination of respect, eagerness to please and, quite possibly, fear, Mummy progressed from novice to a winner of cooking competitions within the next 5 years. The path was not easy and was probably paved with high drama. As she relentlessly repeated each progress to get it perfect, cooking gradually became her therapy – and eventually, her triumph.
Except for her final Raya when she was mid-treatment, we had never served our guests any dish which was not cooked by hand from our kitchen. We were quite possibly the only household known amongst my father’s circle of friends To Never Have Catered. Mum was celebrated equally for her Grace Kelly-elegance as she was for her cooking mastery.
And in the end, Mum would not have traded her cooking induction for any other less emotionally-charged experience. Cooking eventually became an outlet to slowly release part of her private reserved self to find her place within Baba’s crowded social existence. Her dishes would speak firmly for her- even when her early conversations in Bahasa Indonesia were hesitant.
Although Baba loved to explore new dining places, he always preferred hosting guests at home. Mum would intermittently pop in and out of the kitchen to the dining table, to ensure the food was perfectly presented, piping hot. She may not have always joined in the conversations but she would still be within ear-shot to hear the grateful and appreciative Oohs and Aahs celebrating her early dishes. That must have meant a whole lot to a new bride who was still trying to ease her way into her new life and her diverse maiden roles.
When we were growing up, there seemed to be a constant stream of house guests – relatives from Singapore and Jakarta, and closer to home, our neighbours who would casually drop by unannounced and Baba’s bachelor mates, always eager for a hearty meal at the end of a working week. Our parents’ hospitality was such that no guest would ever leave without being served hot-of-the-stove food; it would have been unheard of to just be serving tea and biskut kering. Baba’s foreign business associates and friends were also a constant feature, for whom dinner would be a carefully planned exercise from discussions of dietary preferences up to its napkin-colour execution.
As children, we were dignified not just with seating at the table but with insights into the preparation and the background of our dinner guests and of their faraway home countries. We were always cautioned to only speak when spoken to, but all the same, it felt very adult to have even been included. Mostly we observed and listened, but on occasions when we were spoken to, it felt important that a real adult would be so interested in what we had to say.
That as if we – and our answers in our small voices from our even smaller lives- actually mattered. Baba and Mummy may have just been hosting dinner but we were witnessing our first lessons in the table manners, in conversations and in making people feel at ease- and at home.
For Mum, cooking had unlocked within her a latent natural talent. And with that, her newly found universe of home entertaining. To this day, when we entertain at home, we still use the same plates, tea service and gravy boats carefully selected by Mum and serve the composition of dishes she had taken great effort to deliberate on many many dinner parties ago.
For Ramadhan, which required the organization of 2 meals to be served at precise timings- at breaking of fast and pre-dawn, methodical Mum prepared a complete menu ahead for the entire month listing the dishes, the sweet accompanying drinks (bandung/cincau/cendol) all the way to the desserts (bubur kacang/keledek goreng/suji pudding with fruit cocktail), for each meal to guarantee a whole month of diverse, balanced and non-repetitive feasting. We have had 3 house helps since, all of whom did not have the privilege of sharing kitchen with Mum- and yet Mum’s list remains a source of primary Ramadhan reference. She had set a pace and left a legacy which was to last far beyond her lifetime.
In time, Mum finally understood that Nenek wanted her to perfect her kitchen skills – not just for her son – but quite possibly for herself as well. Nenek’s generous sharing of skill would be her eternal gift to Mummy. Cooking was not just putting food on the table, Nenek knew that home-cooked food would always bring people together. Indeed, that was how she had lived her life. Mummy used to say that with Baba’s family, you would always buy pisang goreng enough to feed 20 even if you were in a household of 5. That was just part of the Banjar household Standard Operating Procedure- and your way of opening your home and hearts to the world outside your door.
When we were away, Mum continued sharing family anecdotes in her long letters sent diligently twice a week all throughout our boarding school and university years-letters which often included detailed accounts of food and feasting.
April 18, 1988
May 26, 1988
January 24, 1991
Where once she referred to her handwritten notes, she soon gave oral family history formed structure by migrating all of Nenek’s recipes into typed alphabetised files.
On Mum’s table was the easy co-existence of our food, families, friendships- and our separate and shared histories. Aunty Freda’s Sugee Cake was as familiar to us as Mak Ainah’s and Mak Timah’s Lepat Banjar. There was a place and space for both on her table and in our everyday lives.
Gradually, the women themselves would be as acquainted as our palates would be to their offerings. We would congregate at the Hendroffs for Christmas and sing loud carols as Aunty Freda played the piano. At kenduris hosted at our home, Mum’s relatives would wait for us to finish prayers before joining us for a communal biryani dinner. We did not know life any other way – everything seemed a fit, its separate moving parts coming together to make Family.
On reflection we were too young and too oblivious to have really appreciated what efforts and sacrifices it took Mummy and Baba to make it all work and for it to appear as it did. And what they built together, we continue to all enjoy right to this very day.
My uncle, Abah Mahmud although raised by grandparents in a separate household in Indonesia, shares the intense family passion for food and would take great pride in getting the best chefs all the way from Banjarmasin in Kalimantan for all family weddings to maintain authenticity of legacy recipes. At the most recent wedding, the caterers set up stalls around his home, each preparing a Banjar native dish. We were taken on a little tour, our relatives taking great pains to explain the intricacies of each dish.
To our absolute surprise, each dish was far from being novel, in fact, they were everyday-familiar! We still serve Selada (a warm beef stew with bergedil) each time we have dinner guests at home, not necessarily to celebrate bride and groom. As Mummy would painstakingly make Lepat to await the arrival of Baba’s return from his business trips, we still reserve Lepat for special occasions, served with a side of sambal tumis udang, boiled egg and serunding. And Soto Banjar, Mum’s Saturday lunch staple – is entrenched as a regular meal at home.
At Raya, our friends and relatives continue to congregate at our house to enjoy the same Banjar dishes merged seamlessly with the spread of Eurasian delicacies, prepared according to Mummy’s template set from more than 4 decades ago. Mum had embraced the food as her own and made it ours. On hearing this, a Banjar aunt reminisced “Oh yes, that was what your grandmother used to tell us – that your mother used to make everything better than “orang kita” (“our own people”). And that by any standards, is high praise indeed…
In memory of Salina Cynthia De Costa
We miss you everyday…