Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen - Asian Recipes from My Mother
By Sharon Wee


The food we eat as children often subconsciously becomes the basis for comparison for every morsel we consume as adults. Whether this is favourable or not depends not only on the quality and quantity of that early food, but also whether it was consumed in a happy, angry or sad household.

From her book, it seems that Singaporean Sharon Wee was one of the more fortunate ones, having grown up in a loving (if strict) family with delicious food. Perhaps her mother was trying to make up for her own childhood, which included losing her mother (Wee's grandmother) at a young age and having a father who believed it was more "genteel" to have daughters who stayed at home, rather than attend school. Once married and moved into her husband's multi-generational household, Wee's mother was taught to cook by her husband's blind, maternal grandmother, who would spit out food if it wasn't right and make her re-cook it until it was perfect.

The Nonyas - women of Peranakan heritage in Southeast Asia - are renowned for their baking skills and Wee devotes much of the book to sweets, including pineapple tarts; kueh bangket (tapioca-flour cookies that can be ethereal or dense, depending on the skill of the baker); kueh lapis spekkoek (often called thousand-layer cake); pandan chiffon cake; and kaya (pandan- and coconut-flavoured custard jam). The savoury dishes sound just as good: there are recipes for chicken curry (including making your own curry powder, which yields 900 grams); curry laksa; nasi lemak; otak-otak (spicy fish paste grilled in banana leaves); shrimp sambal; ayam rendang (chicken in spicy coconut gravy); and squid stuffed with minced pork in soup.