The exercise book is torn and tattered at the edges. I believe that it is as old as I am, if not older. In it are recipes my mother had jotted down over the years.
These are recipes that have been passed down through the generations. My mother learned some of the family’s much loved dishes from our late paternal step-grandmother, an aunt or two and from cooking and baking classes that she attended when we were young.
That book is her prized possession. When she moved to stay with my brother in Putrajaya, she accidentally left the book in my home. She nagged me endlessly until I had the book delivered to her.
She refers to it from time to time, especially when there is heavy-duty cooking involved during the festive season. She wants to get the ingredients correct. Yes, there are no measurements in her cooking recipes, just the ingredients, unlike the recipes for baking cakes and cookies, where the ingredients have to be precise. Like all other elders, her cooking entails taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and throwing it all in the pot.
During the recent Hari Raya Aidiladha, she decided that my sister-in-law and I do the cooking. Now, for the first time in our adult lives, my mother is handing over the cooking for the festive season to us.
You see, the kitchen had always been my mother’s domain. She thinks we would be in her way as she moves around in the kitchen.
But, this time around, she supervised us in the kitchen. She asked my sister-in-law to cook the lamb biryani while I was told to boil the rice. She also asked that I make the custard pudding, a typical Johor dessert eaten with custard sauce and fruit cocktail. I had never done this before and I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for the recipe. So, I looked up the recipe on the Internet. And, I found one that was just like the way my mother made it.
As my sister-in-law stirred the lamb in the pot and I put the rice to boil in the electric rice cooker, I realised that my mother was passing the mantle to us to keep these family recipes alive.
She was protective of her recipes before, but she was now willingly sharing them with us. Now, many precious family recipes are in danger of being lost as children have lost interest, especially in cooking and baking traditional dishes and treats (well, in my case and that of my cousins’, we are chased out of our family kitchens by our mothers). They prefer to engage catering services rather than cooking the dishes themselves.
Family recipes, according to one article that I read, are a way of keeping our ancestry alive. The food we cook and eat can tell us of our heritage and culture. I have been asked if I can cook Laksa Johor (using spaghetti, no less) or make Harissa (oats is its main ingredient), and that I should at least know what Air Beyh is even if I don’t even know how to make it.
Yes, as a Johorean, I know what these are and can tell you a little history about these foods, too.
Until last year, 51 dishes had been declared a national heritage by the National Heritage Department. And, hopefully, these dishes will survive the test of time as more and more fusion cuisine is created and served in cafes and restaurants.
Yes, there are many people sharing their family recipes on the Internet, but you have to try it out to see if it turns out the way your mother cooks it.
And, there is Puan Sri Habibah Salleh, who published two volumes of a recipe book entitled For My Children… What I Cooked for You. It is a record of dishes — from the simplest to the most elaborate — that she had cooked for her children and which they liked.
She said she got married not knowing how to cook, especially Malay dishes. To make matters worse, her husband came from a household known for turning out the best in Malay dishes. He was very fond of Malay food and she was constantly aware of the reference point of “mother’s cooking”.
She said her children asked her to leave some records for them. “I also feel an intense and urgent need to do so because I remember with sadness what happened to my mother-in-law’s book of carefully collected recipes written in her own handwriting — passed to the wife of her youngest son and, thereafter, to disappear forever. I remember the exercise book, thick and well-worn, packed to the hilt with additional pages of recipes gained from relatives,” she wrote in the preamble.
I consider myself lucky for being given the two volumes by Habibah. I have referred to it when it was my time to be in the kitchen.
In due time, we will have to do the same with my mother’s exercise book — maybe not in a book form but copying it again as hardcopy or storing it in a pen drive or hard disk — for the sake of our future generation. By the way, my mother’s recipes are written in Jawi. That, too, is a dying tradition.