Family recipes: our ties to the past, if we preserve them

March 22, 2011

Driving around Singapore on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, my Uncle Ah Tuang was deep in reverie, recalling how my late grandmother was once so poor that she ran an illicit gambling den, when a specific memory suddenly gripped him.

“She used to make food for the gamblers: pua kiao beng,” he said, saying the words “gambling rice” in the Teochew Chinese dialect that my family in Singapore speaks. My grandmother, it turns out, had been as shrewd in running her gambling operation as she was at the stove. She didn’t want gamblers to leave in search of food, so she started cooking for them, making a convenient meal that could be consumed right at the card table. “It’s basically rice that’s easy to eat when you’re gambling,” Uncle Ah Tuang explained. “You serve it in one bowl, so gamblers can hold it in one hand and carry on gambling.”

In the decades that I had known Uncle Ah Tuang — and the rest of my family, for that matter — I had never heard of my grandmother’s gambling rice. As a child in Singapore, I had grown up not wanting to cook, seeing no value in a practice that I believed had been forced on generations of women before me in order to make them good wives. It wasn’t until I had moved halfway across the world to make a new life for myself in the United States that I realized the folly in that. As a 20-something professional in Washington, I began taking to the kitchen. But as the years went by, althoughI was able to produce delicious pies and beautiful bologneses in my own kitchen, the dishes of my Singaporean girlhood remained a mystery to me. And so did the stories surrounding those dishes.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. While almost everyone I know has a dish from their childhood that inspires great nostalgia, not many of them have taken the time to learn how to make it or ask about the story behind it. The reason is simple: We are far busier than ever before. Who has the hours to spend in the kitchen with Mom, learning her time-hewn lasagna recipe? Culinary anthropology simply is no longer a priority.

“These recipes really tie us to our past,” says Susan Adams, a food historian and assistant professor of nutrition at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “If we don’t save these, it’s like taking our history and throwing it down the drain.”

Preservation of family recipes has been on the decline for decades in America, among the catalysts being the women’s movement in the 1970s and the rise in two-income families, leading to a more hectic home life and, generally, less-labor-intensive meals. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the percentage of American households that reported cooking twice or more a day dropped from almost 36 percent in 1993 to 29.5 percent in 2005.

Home cooking has seemed to be on the uptick more recently: In the year ending in February 2010, Americans consumed an average of 877 meals at home, 7.3 percent more than in 2002, according to the NPD Group. (However, NPD also reported that fewer main dishes in those meals were being made from scratch.) In popular culture, Web sites such as Ancestry.com and television shows such as NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” have sparked a renewed interest in genealogy. And in the DIY-focused blogosphere, an appreciation for old family recipes appears to be bubbling up.

Stephanie Hua, a 27-year-old in Washington who writes the Lick My Spoon food blog, says she began missing the dishes of her mother and grandfather when she moved away from New Jersey, where she grew up.

“I realized I couldn’t go home every weekend for that fish or tofu dish that I loved,” says Hua, who recently started following her mother around the kitchen, taking notes on how to make her “steamed” sea bass (which her mother actually cooks via microwave) and mushroom lo mein. “Those specific flavors can instantly unlock a whole flood of emotions, memories and feelings of family, love, comfort. The added bonus is that they are also delicious.”

For some, however, the notion of learning such dishes can be daunting. For years, Camille DeAngelis, author of “Petty Magic,” resisted asking her grandmother and mother for their recipes for meatloaf, apple pie or pumpkin soup, for example, because of “the simple fact that no dish I put together will taste as good as my grandmother’s version.” Then, earlier this year, she got her grandmother’s zucchini souffle recipe and tried it out in her kitchen. “Apparently my grandmother has a great deal more patience than I do. The recipe calls for grated zucchini and onion, but after only a few strokes I gave up and took out the food processor,” DeAngelis says.

“The importance, for me,” she adds, “lies not so much in the preservation of the recipes themselves as in the memories of family dinners they evoke. Someday I want my children to know their great-grandmothers through the dishes they made.”

Like DeAngelis, I had always felt trepidation at the thought of attempting my grandmothers’ and aunties’ recipes. I come from a family of fearless cooks who spin out wonderful feasts of soy sauce-braised duck, salted vegetable soup and even otak, a complex, spicy fish mousse that’s such a chore to make, few Singaporean women bother to try it at home any more.

In my 30s, however, I realized that the keepers of these recipes weren’t getting any younger, and it was time to go home to learn from them. I spent a year traveling to Singapore, venturing deep into the kitchens of my aunties, my mother and my surviving grandmother, armed with a notebook, a camera and sometimes a voice recorder, taking copious notes on how to make Hainanese chicken rice; ngoh hiang, a traditional Fukienese fried summer roll; and beng kuay, a pink rice cake filled with pork belly and mushrooms that Chinese-Singaporeans like to set out to appease the spirits that roam the Earth during the annual Festival of the Hungry Ghosts.

Of all the dishes I learned how to make, my late grandmother’s gambling rice, which an aunt taught me, really struck a chord. This rice was a cinch to make; you simply stir-fry minced shallots, garlic, dried shrimp, mushrooms, shredded cabbage and pork belly, then stir that into uncooked rice and water in a rice cooker.

It’s such a basic dish that I had never taken much note of it before. But when I did take the time to learn it, I realized what a prize it was. That one bowl of rice speaks volumes about my family history: It encapsulates the poverty that drove my grandmother to run a gambling den, and it symbolizes the fortitude and savvy it took to prevent her hungry gamblers from leaving.

History should always be this rich — and taste this good. But we’ll understand it only if we take the time to learn.

Recipe

Chinese Gambling Rice

Tan is the author of “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” (Hyperion, 2011).

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