Chef Shermay Lee preserves her grandmother's recipes for new generation of home cooks

Ms Shermay Lee compiled over 100 of Madam Chua Jim Neo's recipes into The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook in 2003, and a new print run is due out soon. PHOTO: SHERMAY LEE
Ms Shermay Lee compiled over 100 of Madam Chua Jim Neo's recipes into The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook in 2003, and a new print run is due out soon. PHOTO: SHERMAY LEE

One of Ms Shermay Lee's earliest memories is of herself at four years old playing in the kitchen while her late grandmother, Peranakan cuisine doyenne Chua Jim Neo, cooked delicious dishes for the family.

Ayam siow, a traditional dish consisting of marinated chicken braised in a thick sauce made from tamarind and shallots, was a Chinese New Year favourite, Ms Lee recalled fondly.

"My grandma used to make vats of it. The wet market would be closed during Chinese New Year, and she would have to brine or marinate the chicken without refrigeration in those days," she said.

Madam Chua, whose eldest son was Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was a celebrated expert in Peranakan cooking. Better known as Mrs Lee Chin Koon, after her husband's name, she published her famous Mrs Lee's Cookbook in 1974 to ensure that her descendants would have access to recipes that were usually closely guarded family secrets.

She also left some handwritten notes that an older Ms Lee would one day attempt to decipher.

Ms Lee, 44, a sixth-generation Peranakan whose ancestors lived in Malaysia and Indonesia, is now a well-known chef and food consultant in her own right. She has made it her mission to continue to preserve her grandmother's legacy for a new generation of home cooks.

In 2003, she published The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook in two volumes, compiling more than 100 of Madam Chua's recipes with full-colour photographs and more precise descriptions.

 

Certain ingredients, such as beef lung, have been phased out as they are now harder to come by or do not fit the modern Singaporean palate, Ms Lee said. Even in an age of Instagram chefs and YouTube recipes, interest in old-school cookbooks persists, she said.

The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook has sold tens of thousands of copies and Ms Lee is planning a new print run that is due to hit bookstores in about two months. "Merging Singapore's modern food standards and technology with grandma's traditional recipes is my way of honouring her memory," said Ms Lee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'Preserving granny's recipes for new age'. Print Edition | Subscribe