I’m a lucky mom in that my children generally enjoy my cooking. Their favourite is the nasi lemak that I would whip up on special occasions, including Chinese New Year, usually on the second day. I don’t cook it often because it’s a lot of work, everything has to be made from scratch using fresh ingredients and I always insist on using traditional methods over modern appliances.

The chilli paste for the sambal petai, for example, must be pounded using a pestle and mortar for the best texture and flavours. The rice needs to have enough santan that’s squeezed by hand and I always throw in a few chunks of ginger when it’s cooking, to offset the ‘wind’ that some people experience after consuming the creamy nasi. For the rendang, one of the most important ingredients is the kerisik, which is shredded coconut that’s fried in a wok until it turns a golden shade and the oil has been extracted from it.

All these I learned from the ladies in the kampung where I spent much of my teenage years and until I got married at the age of 22.

My father was hired by a Malay man to manage his orchard on a piece of land provided under a Felda scheme, or Rancangan Felda, and our family lived in a wooden kampung house on stilts. Among the villagers, the whole area was known simply as ‘Rencangan’.

Each day, in the late mornings and late afternoons, there would be a wonderful mix of aromas wafting from the kitchens as the ladies got to work preparing meals for their families. Whenever I could, I would sneak over to one of the villagers’ homes and help them prep and cook.

The makciks were always eager to teach me and found it amusing that this young Chinese girl loved gulai and masak merah more than her Teochew porridge!

All the cooking tips and techniques I learned from them certainly served me well after I got married and became a housewife myself, as my husband is also fond of Malay dishes and spicy food. You could say it helped add spice to our marriage!

What’s your favourite cuisine other than your own? Do you have a signature dish from that cuisine, and where/how did you learn to cook it?

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