Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
“Have you joined the Baba Nyonya group?”
Mum stands over a four-litre pot of babi pongteh, coating heavy chunks of pork with fermented soybean spice paste. The howling rangehood almost drowns the scrape of her steel spatula as I idly poke through our snack basket.
“Yeah, you added me ages ago.” I pilfer a sweet pink roll of haw flakes to distract my peckish mouth. “I don’t really use Facebook that much anymore.”
My mum has peppered the Baba Nyonya Recipe Sharing Group into nearly every conversation on cooking we’ve had since she found it. At over 117,000 members strong, the Facebook group is full of recipes for Peranakan, Malaysian, and Singaporean foods, a global community for cooking tips and food envy. Not all members are Baba Nyonya, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese, but all appreciate the cuisine. Born from Chinese settlers marrying Malay women centuries ago, the small sub-culture has more admirers than members.
“You should look. A lot of good recipes there.”
She pours hot water over the browned meat. It’s a recipe she’s made many times, long before Facebook was invented, but the Baba Nyonya group has given her kitchen new inspiration. After decades alone in Australia, preparing dishes cobbled from memories, experiments, and a few ageing recipe books, the ability to finally connect with other Peranakans is a blessing.
My parents moved from Singapore to Australia in the ’80s, a time before cooking blogs and instant messaging. There were only recipes peppered with missing ingredients, often unattainable even if you knew their English names. Peranakan restaurants were unheard of, and there were no other Peranakans they might befriend. Meeting other Asians was rare enough.
Mum pulled together a diasporic diet with what she could source in small Vietnamese grocery stores and large supermarket chains, substituting and supplementing where needed. Separating a nyonya from her food is both dangerous and futile, and my mum already had a history of resilience.
There were still some dishes she couldn’t reverse-engineer, flavours she couldn’t recreate. Some methods also demanded time and labour my parents couldn’t spare. There was little point in dwelling on it though. Some things were just lost in the move.
The drying basket on my hip is littered with bunga telang fresh from my garden. The flowers used to climb up my great-grandmother’s fence in Singapore, deep blue blossoms she’d pluck and dry to colour nyonya bak chang and kueh. The rice dumplings and steamed cakes technically taste the same without bright pigmentation, but colour is just as much a part of Peranakan culture as food.
The dried flowers are expensive now, one of the ethnic ingredients caught up in the Western frenzy for “superfoods.” My uncle tried to substitute blue food colouring once, but the hue came out all wrong.
“Here.” Dad wanders over with a handful of shrivelled flowers, adding them to my fresh ones. It doesn’t matter that they’ve withered, since I’d have dried them all anyway. “Dry on the plant, still can use.”
Mum never tried planting bunga telang in Australia, doubtful the tropical plant could tolerate the temperate climate. She’d attempted it before with pandan, carefully nursing the potted plant in the bathroom until it seemed strong enough to survive outdoors. Unfortunately its glossy green leaves soon withered upon exposure to the elements, and we harvested only disappointment.
When I told mum I wanted to grow bunga telang, she therefore tried to discourage me. “It’s too cold,” she warned as I stubbornly searched Google for the plant’s English name. Various gardening websites claimed the plant could sprout in Sydney, and I couldn’t let go of the possibility.
I finally decided to try after finding a classified ad on Gumtree, Australia’s Craigslist, offering a Ziploc bag of 70 seeds for A$2.50. Adding A$1.50 for postage, it was a small outlay for a potentially significant reward. Not all of my plants have survived and few have thrived, but those that have are alive and growing.
I rest my woven rattan tray on an overturned box, spreading the bold blue blossoms out to dry under the Australian sun. I don’t have any plans for them yet. I didn’t think I’d get this far.
As a child, I didn’t know the dishes my mum served were Peranakan. I knew them simply as “mum’s cooking.” It seemed obvious and natural to me that her flavours couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Sydney still doesn’t have a large Peranakan community, or even a particularly close one. Restaurants remain scarce, with ones that can withstand a nyonya’s scrutiny even rarer. The last time my mum ate a Peranakan dish she hadn’t prepared herself was at my uncle’s home in Kuala Lumpur.
It was years before I saw mum’s food outside our home. Seeing them presented by strangers on the internet was odd yet retrospectively obvious, like seeing the ocean when I’d never cast my mind beyond my kitchen sink.
“This is one of my favourite dishes to eat in Singapore,” says Sheena from Chasing a Plate, a YouTube channel about food and travel, as the camera lingers on a wok of fried prawn Hokkien mee. My parents stand around the television, watching a hawker toss in crisp bean sprouts with the same rapt attention others give football.
My parents stand around the television, watching a hawker toss in crisp bean sprouts with the same rapt attention others give football.
“I want!” mum exclaims as Sheena squeezes fresh lime juice over her noodles.
We’ve been watching food vloggers these past few Saturday mornings, flicking through YouTube to find their impressions of Singapore. I’d been pushing for mum to revisit the country with me for a while, but she’d been reluctant to put herself through the ordeal of a plane ride. Now she’s started a list of hawkers to visit when we go.
“Aiya why so bad, why they never give address?” she asks, pen and paper at the ready.
“It’s probably in the description,” I reply. Like them, my eyes remain fixed on Sheena’s red chopsticks. “I’ll have a look later.”
Peranakan food hasn’t historically been available in hawker centres, but hawker food is close to our hearts in a different way. Having these flavours easily available is comforting and familiar, evocative of a lifestyle left behind. Singapore’s unique culinary culture fosters an immediate connection between those who have been a part of it — a shared, communal love of these foods.
We’ve been displaced from this community for a long time. Mum doesn’t know which hawkers are the best anymore, only reminiscing about stalls from decades ago. She’d like to find out again, though.
Kueh tair is usually eaten during the Lunar New Year, but my family keeps baking the sweet coin-sized tarts for weeks after. We didn’t have them when I was younger, unable to find the treat in Sydney shops. Now that we can make them, depriving ourselves of this tiny luxury seems arbitrarily cruel.
“When I was a kid, wah!” says mum as she spoons pineapple jam atop the biscuits, recalling how she’d gorge herself on the tarts. “Just gasak shiok shiok, don’t think about the work that goes into it.”
I grin. “Chiak ka seow!” My Hokkien is practically nonexistent, but “eat until crazy” is a phrase I know well.
We form an after-dinner production line, dad cutting the dough into biscuits while I decorate the jam with tiny flower-shaped cutouts. My great-grandmother used to make the tarts with fresh pineapples lugged from the market, skinning, grating, and cooking everything from scratch. The advent of tinned pineapples has made the whole endeavour much less laborious.
Now mum proudly photographs our neat little tarts to show old classmates on WhatsApp.
The recipe we’ve put together with the Baba Nyonya group’s advice is a vast improvement to our first attempt at making kueh tair. While it had tasted fine, the cream cheese-based dough turned out a sticky mess.
Now mum proudly photographs our neat little tarts to show old classmates on WhatsApp. She also keeps a whole trayload of tinned pineapple in the appliance cupboard, bought in bulk from Aldi.
Building a menu
My sister has recently been seeking cooking tips from mum, messaging, “is there a way can make babi pong teh in slow cooker?” She types in Singaporean staccato, dropping articles and pronouns in the familiar rhythm we learned from our parents. “and if yes can you pls talk me through recipe”
She’s introducing her girlfriend to our diet, running experimental tweaks by mum in our family’s Messenger chat. Babi pongteh has been her favourite since we were children, a frequently requested dinner. It’s almost dangerous that she can now make it herself.
“Can try although meat will be Noah. Make on stovetop better,” mum replies, wary of mushy, tasteless pork. “Nwah, stupid autocorrect”
I’ve been helping mum add recipes to our family Google Drive, though in typical ethnic parent fashion she prefers to agak-agak her ingredients. Nyonyas measure with their eyes and cook by instinct, adding everything to taste. Even when teaching her Westernised daughters, mum struggles to quantify her cooking in millilitres and grams.
“Just watch,” she says. “Then you’ll know.”
There is a lot more to watch now with Facebook and YouTube, and much to know. Even for my mum, whose language has faded after years with only my dad fully understanding her. Sharing recipes with other Peranakans has polished up the bright colours of her memories, renewing them in her present and granting them new relevance.
I have much further to go, but there are more hands to help me now, more knowledge to absorb. I’m still trying to shake off my stickling adherence to measurements though. I’ll never cook like a proper nyonya until I do.
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