TFC Cookbook: Why

Sunday, May 28, 2017

This cookbook has been a few years in the planning but many decades in the making. It is an attempt to pass on my mother’s recipes to future generations of cooks.

My mother, or Auntie Ruby as she was affectionately known by many, was a cook by profession and passion. It was her stepmother - of the kebaya generation - who first taught her some amazing Nonya recipes. Her skills were honed further in the multi-cultural environment that West Malaysia was and still is. She did not make significant headway in her profession, certainly not in the same way as we will understand culinary career success today. But her cooking was well-loved by many.

Family and friends gathered around my cheerful, bubbly and generous Mum – and if the way into a person’s heart is through the stomach, she did that in spades. Her Assam Laksa, Curry Chicken, Prawn Mee, Hakka Yong Tofu and Bubur Cha Cha were homing beacons.

Unlike many Asian home cooks, she did not have the concept of ‘secret recipe.’ She was very generous in sharing her recipes and tips. A humble and constant learner, she connected with other cooks, making them feel like companions on a learning journey rather than competitors.

She was also very adept at making traditional nonya kuih and biscuits. Her Kueh Bangket, Kuih Kapik, Peanut Cookies and Pineapple Tarts were extremely popular running up to Chinese New Year. The more orders she received, the more we had to work. They were whole-day affairs. At the end of the day, we looked and smelled like the cookies we made.
My Mum aka Auntie Ruby
My Mum was quite a perfectionist about her cooking. She kept tweaking her recipes till she was satisfied with the results. She often asked for feedback. I recall how disappointed she looked when we told her something was amiss in her dishes. Looking back, I think we could have been more encouraging in our remarks. Sadly, we often take our own mothers for granted.

When she retired, Mum stayed with us and helped with her grandchildren. We got to enjoy her food again. She was then able to cook entirely for pleasure. When my church ran Alpha courses, her dinners were always memorable for guests. Dinners in my home were wonderful as she unleashed her gathered years of experience into every meal. It seemed like she could cook anything, from homey dishes to restaurant fare.

Mum passed away in 2007. We miss her bubbly presence. We miss Mother. And of course, we miss her cooking.

When she was gone, we initially tried to improvise with takeaways and home deliveries for daily dinners. However, it came to a point when I knew I had to continue her legacy. I wasn’t thinking then of anything more than continuing our family tradition of home-cooked dinners.

The Food Canon Blog

I have always thought that it would be good to help my Mum write and publish a cookbook. When her illness set in, she became incapacitated very quickly. All we could rely on in recreating her dishes was a file of about 30 of her recipes - written down by one of her friends - the rest were just palate memories.

When I put on Facebook a photo of Mum’s Char Siew I made, there were requests for her recipe. That inspired the creation of the food blog. Even then, I was only writing and posting recipes for my friends. I was trying to be silly, to amuse people I was familiar with. Even the title of the blog was tongue-in-cheek. My good friend, Leslie Tay, an established food blogger (ieatishootipost) helped to publicize my blog early on. That drew public attention to it. When I realised that netizens were interested in my Mum’s recipes and what I was doing, I knew that I could do my bit to keep some of the traditions of good home cooking alive.

Thus, in an unexpected way, the blog became a memorial to my Mum. Each time I blog about one of her recipes, memories of her are relived.

The blog has also helped me to connect with many who share my interest in the dynamic world of Southeast Asian cuisine. I have found that those who are studying or living overseas are keen to find authentic recipes and techniques and recreate what their grandmas, mums or aunties have made. It is fascinating how closely intertwined food, family and culture can be.

Cuisines and recipes are evolving very rapidly today. Cooking traditions are now better explained through food science. My Mum loved soft-boiled eggs and she would have been very amazed by how perfect soft-boiled eggs can be achieved by Sous Vide appliances. She had no idea that there would be another way to make good Bak Kut Teh. Yet, there still remains an appreciation of the necessity of traditional techniques. The Nasi Lemak rice needs to be steamed. Good Sambal Belacan still needs to be pounded. Claypot Chicken Rice still taste best in a sand claypot. The wok is still irreplaceable as a simple yet versatile appliance.

The TFC Cookbook
Can be purchased from local bookstores or The Cathedral Cafe @ St Andrew's Cathedral
Undoubtedly, this cookbook flows from the blog. Being my first cookbook, it has a strong focus on reliving my Mum’s favourite recipes. I have written a helpful article on how you can use these recipes effectively (see pagexx).

It is not easy to master a recipe and cook it consistently well. Be patient. I know of some cooks who stop working on a recipe because they ‘failed’ the first time. Keep at it as you will learn from your mistakes. ‘Failure’ has to do with your expectations. Lower them when you start on a new recipe.

This cookbook needs to be read with other cookbooks and cooking websites in mind. The number of pages could easily be doubled if I include details on regional herbs, spices, vegetables and traditional utensils.

My blog and this cookbook aims to add value to the growing discussion and sharing of dishes and techniques from the Malaysian, Singaporean, Nonya, and other Southeast Asian cuisines, as well as the way they are interacting with other food cultures.

Most of all, I want to inspire the home cook - an endangered species in our hectic, modern world. It is often at the dining table, over a home-cooked meal, that family memories are formed and bonds strengthened. This tradition can easily be lost over the span of a generation, along with time-honored family recipes.

Likewise, we risk losing our regional, even local recipes in a globalized world where the new generation is more enamored by Western celebrity chefs, longing to make Beef Wellington rather than Sio Bak, mastering a soufflé and ignoring Kueh Kosui.

As a Christian and a pastor, I have also become more aware of how food and cooking can enrich communities (see page xx). My faith in a Creator whom I know and worship is not restricted to Church services on Sundays. It is something that centers my life and gives meaning to everything I do.

I hope you will find this cookbook enjoyable and useful. Visit my blog and stay in touch. Drop me an email. I will appreciate your feedback.

It is a journey we will take together to keep the recipes we love alive, for the sake of those who have cared for us, our culture and for the love of home-cooked food.

I am grateful to God for the legacy my Mum has left behind. I am grateful for every gift He has given me through her.

It is my joy to share them with you.

Terry Wong aka The Food Canon

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  1. Thank you Pastor Terry! Great post and enjoy reading your posts. Keep it up!