Foodie Confidential

Actress Noorlinah Mohamed bonds with mum over food

Actress Noorlinah Mohamed wants to cook her favourite dish, mee siam, the same way her mother did

Food is what bonds theatre actress Noorlinah Mohamed, 48, and her mother Bee Bee Mohamed Salam, 91.

Madam Bee Bee was in her 40s when she adopted Noorlinah, who is her only child.

"My mother was a fantastic cook and she demonstrated her love for me through food," says Noorlinah. "Her lines to me whenever I came home from school or work were, 'Have you eaten? There is food.' To her, my well-being is based on food."

She recalls copying down recipes for her mother from a radio cooking programme as a child.

Because Madam Bee Bee is illiterate, she memorised the recipes she heard. When cooking from memory, she asked Noorlinah to check her steps against the copied recipe.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • It must be at home, with someone I know. If it's possible, I'd like to have my favourite dish, which is mee siam, but I'm not sure if I will still be physically able to eat it.

    Wait. I think I'd like to have chicken wings instead. It's the only version of cooked chicken I eat.

"I would hope to God that I had copied it right," says Noorlinah, who has a doctorate in arts education from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

"Sometimes, she would disagree with the instructions and I would make little notes of her edits in the notebooks."

The last recipe she copied for her mother was when she was in her late 20s. By then, the recipes were mostly from print sources.

After Noorlinah got married, her mother would "cook enough for an army" whenever she visited her with her husband, who is 46 and runs a management consultancy. They have no children.

But illness has robbed Madam Bee Bee of the ability to continue cooking. She last cooked in 2010, the year she was diagnosed with dementia.

Noorlinah paid tribute to her mother's cooking prowess when she appeared as a guest speaker in a Singapore International Festival of Arts performance, Time Between Us. In the work by Argentinian dramatist Fernando Rubio and Singaporean actor Oliver Chong, the latter inhabits a wooden house built from fragments of homes no longer in existence, hosting audio and video live streams.The show ends its run tonight.

Each night, a guest speaker turns up to talk to Chong. As the guest speaker last Friday night, Noorlinah took her favourite dish, mee siam, to the performance space and spoke about her mother's battle with dementia.

"The dish reflects my desire to be like my mother. She cooked excellent mee siam and I want to do it the way she did it," she says.

Turning wistful, she adds that she knows that it is not possible.

"I can't replicate her dishes because she cooks from a different generation. Her kind of flavouring and cooking is different," she says.

"I know I don't need to be like her. I can revisit her dishes in my own way, in my own time. That essence, I can carry on." Are you an adventurous eater? Yes. When I was holidaying in Thailand in the late 1990s, I tried deep-fried crickets and grasshoppers that were seasoned with salt and vinegar. Eating them reminded me of eating soft-shell crab - the insects were soft and crunchy.

When holidaying in Peru in 2007, I tried deep-fried guinea pig. The meat was tough and gamey.

Is there anything you do not eat?

It has been about seven years since I stopped eating foie gras. I used to love it. But after watching a documentary which showed the ducks being force-fed and trapped in tiny cages, I could not eat it anymore.

I have also stopped eating shishamo (pregnant fish). I used to find them so tasty, especially when you get to the part where the eggs are, until I watched a video on the way they are harvested. The male fish were tossed aside because only the pregnant females were of value. I also became horrified at the idea of eating a creature that was pregnant.

Is there anything you used to hate eating, but now love?

As a child, I hated porridge with Vegemite and soft-boiled eggs. I found them disgusting. It's funny how your taste buds change. I adore Teochew-style porridge now and I always have soft-boiled eggs for breakfast on weekends.

Is there any dish you are particular about?

I'm very particular about how achar (pickled vegetables) ought to be made. It's done so shoddily these days. The achar that I sometimes chance upon usually consists of limp and bland cucumber and does not have a good balance of sweet and sour flavours.

A good achar should first see the cucumber being rubbed with salt to extract the water. Then, you use vinegar, sugar, fresh red chillies, onion, and garlic to make the marinade. Once that's done, you add the cucumber. The cucumber and marinade must sit together for at least 24 hours, so you eat the achar the next day. You never eat the achar on the day you make it.

What are some of your best home-cooked dishes?

Mee siam and my own version of fried rice, which I make with salmon, capers, dill and lemongrass. I came up with this fried rice recipe when I was studying in the United Kingdom between 2009 and 2013 because I had access to all sorts of fresh herbs there.

Do you have a favourite hawker centre?

I love Bedok Corner Food Centre in Bedok Road. I frequent three hawkers there for bubur kampung (a Malay porridge dish), nasi rawon (rice smothered with a beef buah keluak stew) and mutton mandi rice.

Which is your favourite steak haunt here? My all-time favourite steak place is Morton's The Steakhouse at Mandarin Oriental Singapore. I always have the prime rib cooked medium rare. The cuts here are clean and you can taste the flavours right off the meat.

What is going to a restaurant all about?

When I go to a restaurant, I always dress up because I'm making a date with the restaurant; I'm having a date with the food.

Of course, the date is with the company too. The people you share the meal with are an equally important part of the pleasure of dining.

Going to a restaurant is a luxury that requires time and company.

What is food to you?

Food is pleasure. Food is social. Food is also memory because when you eat something good, it triggers a dining memory from the past.

But food is cooked and eaten with great speed these days. I would like more time to enjoy food.

Is there any eatery that you wish were still open?

I feel very sad about Eden Sanctuary Floral Cafe closing down.

I don't know when this eatery in Rochester Park shut, but the chef incorporated fresh edible flowers like violets and roses into the dishes.

It was there that I ate flowers for the first time in my life. I remember the chef served a steak with blue cheese and flowers. Because of the way he did the dish, I became a convert to blue cheese. It was a special place.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Bonding over food'. Print Edition | Subscribe