Small Change

Life lessons in a Chetty Melaka kitchen

My grandaunt, who witnessed two world wars, taught us how to live a rich life without breaking the bank

There was a time, before the invention of kitchen boons such as electric blenders and Kitchenaid, when Chetty Melaka families in Singapore plated up a veritable cornucopia of Indian Peranakan dishes on a highly restrained budget, using the simplest of kitchen utensils.

There were the lesung (granite mortar, usually sold with a matching granite pestle) - the "eclectic blenders" of the era - which could pulverise, mash up and liquefy almost any ingredient known to man. With such sturdily reductive latter-day "appliances", one hardly needed Kitchenaid. And there was no need to go to the gym; the arduous pounding made sure one had quite a workout - to say nothing of toned arms.

Through skilful time management, the freshest produce and a system of cooking that entailed pegang tangan (touch of hand), the matriarchs of Chetty Melaka kitchens made food which hardly needed refrigeration, and their uncanny sense of pegang tangan greatly reduced wastage - from the food preparation stage right down to the quantity served.

It was anathema in our family to write down recipes. Everything was passed down through the generations by "agak-agak" (guesswork). If you got it wrong, you had to finish your mess yourself - and God forbid any chucking down the rubbish chute.

Food wastage is such a cardinal sin in Chetty Melaka kitchens - even to this day - that the matriarchs would even consume the leftover food themselves rather than invoke the wrath of Annapurni, the resident deity of the kitchen for Chetty Melaka families, who although they dress and speak like Malays, are staunch Hindus. The goddess, we were all taught even before we sprouted our front teeth, presides over the making of food, so every precious morsel wasted is an insult to her.

Because of this, we grew up valuing money even more - that by cleaning our plates, we were building up our store of merit by honouring the work of those who had slaved in the kitchen all day to put food on the table and also those who worked all day to make it possible for food to be paid for in the first place.

This deeply ingrained value would, in our later lives, stand us in good stead when we procured food from the supermarket, mentally calculating how much we need for our dishes without buying in excess - so that food did not sit in the fridge and spoil.

The writer's mother Madam Devaki Nair (left) and grandaunt Madam Salachi Retnam in 1991, with some of the Indian Peranakan dishes they had made using centuries-old recipes that were handed down through oral tradition. Pegang tangan, or touch of hand, ensured that the right quantity of ingredients were used and nothing was wasted. PHOTO: K.F. SEETOH

I can still remember my grandaunt Salachi Retnam, who was my mother's guru in all things fragrant, aromatic and downright mouth-watering after my own grandmother passed on in the 1980s.

In 1991, she was the subject of a cover story by food writer Violet Oon for her Food Paper. Ms Oon interviewed my grandaunt and my mother on the fading art of Indian Peranakan cuisine, together with photographer-turned-food writer K.F. Seetoh, who also shot a few photos for our family album.

Achi Atha, as we called our grandaunt (Atha was the Tamil word for "grandmother", making no distinction between grandmother and grandaunt), was born at the turn of the century, in 1903, a British subject who grew up to live with her uncle in Katong, after her parents passed on early in her life.

She was under the care of her unmarried uncle and his sisters, and was taught the intricacies of the Chetty Melaka traditions. She lived through World War I and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II.

According to her granddaughter (and my cousin), Madam Susheela, Achi Atha would be up at the crack of dawn to make sure breakfast, lunch and dinner were taken care of, and then she would prepare the "kueh menu" for the day.

"She would gather bunga telang flowers (butterfly pea flowers) to extract their blue dye for the popular desserts pulut inti and kueh dadah, and then she would prepare 'inti' (grated coconut cooked with gula melaka and pandan leaves) to be used as filling for desserts, which were usually made 'a la minute' when an unexpected guest dropped by," she said.

Even in such frugal times as between the two world wars, Achi Atha always had something homemade and sweet on hand for guests. "No one was allowed to leave without a drink or a dessert," said Madam Susheela. "That was the custom in our ancestors' homes, which has continued in our lives till this present day."

For Hindus, the mantra "the guest is God" - from the Sanskrit Atithi devo Bhavah - results in a time-honoured practice of honouring any guest with warm hospitality and food and drink, even if they enter our portals unannounced. (This is extended only to those to whom we are accustomed, and not to rank strangers. The rule was that when in doubt about a guest, never allow them to enter, and then apologise a few days later after you have established their relationship to the family.)

Chetty Melaka women are known not only for their Malay-Indian dishes but also for their very Straits grooming and attire. Like the Chinese Peranakan, they were resourceful in every aspect of their culture.

My grandaunts and my grandmother would frequent Geylang Serai or Arab Street to buy "kain lepas" (sarong kebaya which were sold in 4m-5m lengths), and they would tie these skirts in such a way that would allow them free movement to do their housework - from squatting over a charcoal stove to climbing the jackfruit tree to slice off ripe backyard produce, to bedtime, with a change of their very diaphanous blouses that showed a plain chemise underneath. No nighties needed - who would allow that extra expense?

Even their hair had to be neatly combed with scented oil to make sure not a strand was out of place. To do this, the matriarchs used a single thread which they tied around the hair starting from the crown and down to the ends of their tresses - to catch every stray, non-compliant strand. This was all neatly coiffed into a "cucuk sanggul" - or chignon bun.

Hairdressers and hair salons hardly did any brisk business with these tight-wadded, chignon-sporting women looking their best, even on a windy, bad-hair-day afternoon. Shoes matched the kebaya with indigenous beaded designs, which were a recurring leitmotif.

(From left) Lemongrass, calamansi limes, pandan leaves and bunga telang flowers (butterfly pea flowers) are must-haves in any Indian Peranakan kitchen. The matriarchs traditionally extracted blue dye from the flowers for pulut inti and kueh dadah. The Sanskrit mantra “the guest is God” meant that any guest was welcomed with warm hospitality and a drink or a dessert – something homemade and sweet. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Even in her mid-90s, when she turned up early in the morning to advise my mother on the finer points of ayam buah keluak (buah keluak, a poisonous seed from the Kepayang tree, native to Malaysia and Indonesia, which is "cured" of its cyanide content by a careful process of boiling, immersing in ash and later being buried in the earth for a certain period), my grandaunt parlayed raw produce, fowl and grains into scented rice, rich, creamy curries and melt-in-the-mouth desserts without breaking a sweat.

The perfume du jour since the early 1900s among Chetty Melaka women was none other than that must-have curio of scents, the 4711 Eau de Cologne, and my grandaunt bathed in it. She also swore on it for fending off almost every malady - from cooling the body down to curing insomnia and even the cold. Now, how many of us can boast that our French perfume can multitask like that in the sweltering Asian heat? That tiny bottle of Eau de Cologne, conceived in 1820 in Germany, certainly punched way above its weight.

By the early 1980s, my mother had already become quite the exponent of this Indian sub-culture's cuisine. She had learnt how to prepare curry powder - not from store-bought packets - but by manually drying the raw ingredients and then getting them milled in Little India in big batches that could last for up to three months when kept in the fridge.

Coriander seeds were dried in the sun on flat baskets that also acted as sieves to drain out excess water. So were cumin, fennel, dried chillies and fenugreek seeds. These were later combined to make curry powder for vegetable curries, meat and fish dishes.

The homemade curry powder, if done according to matriarchal dictates, never stuck to the pan when it hit the oil, as no flour or fillers were allowed. And that meant that you needed to use less of these spice mixes, as they were potent dish enhancers.

That's also where the pegang tangan approach comes in during the cooking process - the touch of hand that allows the cook to use the spices judiciously with no wastage; just by the touch of the hand, one can intuitively gauge how much chilli powder to add for heat, and how much curry mix to put in the ayam buah keluak so that it does not overpower the distinctive taste of the buah keluak.

It is an alchemical moment when cook, spice and ingredients are almost immersed in some sort of inexplicable kitchen Zen, on a level beyond the lesser neophytes, who can only pore over recipe books, trying to cook by rote.

For the interview with Ms Oon, in just one morning, my mother had whipped up a chicken curry, a dry-fry mutton Mysore dish, a fish stew, ikan panggang, stir-fried vegetables, Peranakan Indian chap chye, fragrant basmati rice, a range of yogurt accompaniments made with mint and pomegranates, and desserts - rich, chocolate cake and Malay-style coconut candy. My grandaunt's disciple had truly come into her own.

Nothing goes to waste, as per the teachings of my grandaunt - as after the photo shoot, there were takeaway boxes on hand for everyone as well as another round of guests in the evening that my mother had scheduled earlier that day - to finish up every last grain of pandan-infused and cardamom-and cinnamon-enhanced basmati rice and curries.

Achi Atha passed on two years after that great repast, followed, six years later, by my mother. But their teachings and their culinary values have gone on to inspire every other aspect of their children's, grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's lives.

The lessons in the kitchen taught us to be prudent, resourceful, hard-working and frugal, and yet, to always seek to ensure a richness in our lives through exceptionally well-prepared dishes made from the freshest, and not necessarily the most expensive, of ingredients.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 05, 2018, with the headline 'Life lessons in a Chetty Melaka kitchen'. Subscribe