Since starting my charity supper club, my daily activities have had a larger-than-usual scrutiny by my mother. At least, my “real” job, in finance, is far beyond her scope of knowledge, so her offerings of advice veer more on the side of not to cycle to work and be nice to my clients. Unfortunately for me, she does have some expertise in the world of entertaining. In fact, you could definitely say I learnt my skills from her. As the wife of an international banker, we had a glamorous life abroad, and plenty of entertaining. It was, much like an ambassador’s wife, my mother’s “job” to ensure a smoothly running household, and that included entertaining of clients and contacts on sometimes a very large scale, I remember once a sit-down dinner for 100 people. Luckily for her, the bank paid for servants and if necessary an army of caterers to help. I have just me and the odd friend who feels charitable - one good friend came round the night of my first supper club to “do” the flowers, work out how to fold my paper napkins, and open the door when the guests arrived. Sometimes friends come as well, and then, on top of being paying guests, they get press-ganged into playing host, playing deaf and smiling whilst the screams emit from the kitchen. Do you remember my rice nightmares?
Anyway, it’s bad enough having my mother constantly telling me to change the menu (already decided by the time she hears of it!), set the table (no, I was thinking of inviting 14 people to dinner and NOT setting the table) and make sure I give my guests water. But, as a total glutton for punishment, I decided to do a Nyonya night. My mother is Nyonya. Oh dear. At this point I should explain to those who haven’t (WHAT?!!) read the blurb on my Nyonya night, that Nyonya is Straits Chinese. And all those with Chinese mothers will totally understand exactly what’s going on here. Chinese mothers think their daughters are still 3 years old even when they’re 40, and don’t believe they are capable of doing anything at all (eat, cook, sleep, all the basic stuff even) without their help. ESPECIALLY cook. It all culminated in a big row over Christmas when she became so interfering that I couldn’t bear it any longer. I just read a post on a website with a Malaysian recipe. It’s hysterical. Excuse the bad English but it says: “hey, this kuih talam thing is quite hard to make. i did try it once (back in malaysia). instead of getting complimentary, i got an hour of lecture from my mum. guyz, make sure u make this rcipe without the parents knowledge.…”
Yup, that’s about the long and short of it. Anything you do will be wrong, and to a Malaysian, if it’s food-related, it’s definitely going to be wrong. If you're the daughter, it's doubly wrong. After 3 weeks in Malaysia and Singapore, I THANK GOD I’m not doing a supper club out there. EVERYONE is a food critic. And they’re probably more critical than Gordon Ramsay. I made Onde-Onde at a Malay cooking class and brought it back for my aunt to try, and the first thing she told me was it wasn’t very authentic. Then the rest of the household got stuck in with comments. There were a handful of things that could be better (and given there are only 4 ingredients, that’s quite a lot). I haven’t had onde-onde in years. So I went out and bought every onde-onde on any menu I could find for the rest of the holiday. I must have eaten it 4 or 5 times. I swear to God, there wasn’t a noticeable difference between mine and all these others I paid good money for. But you know, everyone does things a tiny bit differently in Malaysia, and if your chicken curry isn’t EXACTLY like their mother’s, you’ve had it.
So, back to my mother. After the big row, I decided the only way out of it was to let my mother get involved. Always a dangerous strategy. But I have on the menu chicken curry, which she taught me to make to my family’s recipe, I can’t really do that better than her. And as a starter, I have a sort of Chinese sausage, Loh Bak, which she has my grandmother’s recipe for. So I enlisted her help on those too. My mother also makes a really brilliant Banana Chiffon Cake. These are super-light souffle-type cakes that are quite a skill to make, and are usually flavoured with pandan, orange or some other light perfume. My friend Nikki, who is an excellent chef, told me banana chiffon was “impossible” because the heaviness of the bananas would collapse it. Well, my mummy can do it.
This sounds like a great idea - outsource half the cooking to my mother, what an easy supper club! But the danger of course is the risk of further interference. We already had another row when I asked her not to “dumb it down” as she usually does when cooking for Westerners. My mother still lives in an age in which Westerners can’t eat chilli. She hasn’t got her head around the concept of a phall, Indian being the new national dish, and the fact that many English people can eat hotter food than I can. We’re going for Authentic here. So it wasn’t looking good. She was coming down to bring the cake and curry she’d cooked and we’d cook the Loh Bak together. I suggested we might be able to do that in an afternoon and got another fit of anger - why could she not stay till the supper club? I needed someone to serve the rice. I knew I should never have told her about my rice cooker disaster, she now thinks I can’t cook rice. It‘s not that, it‘s that I‘d never used a rice cooker before (she pressured me into it). On further investigation I realise that what I thought was the marking for 12 people is more like markings for 12 cups of rice. So I was trying to cook rice for about 30 people. No wonder it didn‘t do a good job. The fact that I usually manage quite on my own, in fact prefer to be on my own so I don’t have to worry about anyone else, was ignored.
So I was somewhat dreading this visitation by my mother. Who knew what might happen. My friend’s mother had given me her recipe for Singapore Laksa. My mother was already advising me on that recipe, asking me what fish I was using (there is no fish in it), and all sort of stuff relating to a Penang Laksa, which is a totally different dish. So with some trepidation, the first thing I did when they arrived was make a bowl of my recipe for my Mum and Dad to try. I was opening myself up to all kinds of criticism, but I have Malaysians coming to the Nyonya night and if I’m gonna get it, better get it before so I have a chance to change it. I actually don’t like laksa, so I’m not a great judge of a great laksa, since I haven’t had it for ages. It tasted OK to me. But I trust my Aunty Lee Leng’s recipe, who’s one of the best cooks I know. My Dad grumbled a bit, he likes my mum’s laksa, he likes the different noodles she uses. But, astonishingly, my mother actually said it was quite nice, and quite authentic (in a very small voice). I asked if I should add more blachan, more laksa leaf, a bit of sugar? I was told not to change a thing. And apparently the noodles I used (recommended by the man in the Vietnamese shop who’s probably never had laksa in his life), were just the right ones.
Wow. What a start. Later, after lunch, we set to making the Loh Bak. This is made with pork and spices, rolled in a bean curd skin, and fried. All the recipes I’d seen were made with belly pork, but my mum said it was too fatty, and had bought loin. I was a bit worried it might end up dry, but went with the flow. She showed me how to cut the meat the way Grandma used to do it, and which bits of the meat to leave out. We seasoned it and fried a test one. We decided it didn’t have enough spices. My dad said it was too salty. Luckily my mother had as much clue how to estimate for large numbers as I did when I started and cooked (or didn’t cook) all that rice, and she’d bought 2 big packs of pork loin, so we ended up diluting the saltiness with another half pack of pork. We laughed and joked and I showed my mum how to make your own 5 spice powder, which we ran out of due to the enormous quantity of pork, and rolled pork in bean curd skins. When Daddy passed by he said “wow! How much are you making? You’ve got enough for 50!”. Well, considering he can’t fry an egg, next time my mum needs to estimate, she’d better ask him. He wasn’t a banker for nothing. We made over 40 with the mix we had and there was pork left over. I only seat 14 and this is a starter, assuming half order it, I need 14 only.…
My dad loves loh bak. But we have a fairly accurate estimate that my mum hasn’t made it for him for over 8 years. We know this because when we raided her larder for skins, we found a pack that expired in 2003. I had to buy fresh ones. So, it’s a bit like London Transport. You can wait 8 years for a loh bak, and then 40 come along at once.
Well, in the end, the whole thing was a bonding experience. We had a good time making it and my mum didn’t stay to drive me mad during the supper club. Maybe I’ll get her to help with another one some time. Oh, and the loh bak was great. My grandma was a legendary cook. It runs in the family.
By the way, my next night is a Georgian Feast on the 24th Jan. Please book early if you want to come. Nyonya night has been fully booked for a while. And the chicken curry I'm going to serve is EXACTLY like my mother's ;-)