A Tribute to My Grandmother

Posted By Yang-Mai Ooi

My Grandmother's Recipe for Soy Sauce Chicken

I’ve been collecting notes for a memoir of my childhood growing up in Malaysia and my coming of age in England.

I got to thinking about all the people who have been in my life. Some of them, like my family, are a part of me and others, like friends and my partner, have become an important part of my life. Others have come and gone or just passed through. But many have left something behind - curious legacies that, taken together, make up the fabric of who I am.

In these notes, I write about some of these curious legacies. Today: My Grandmother’ Recipe for Soy Sauce Chicken

Just after Grandma died, I was in my flat in London and trying to remember how she made crispy garlic sprinkles to go on top of fried noodles. She had a great shortcut for it - she would put the chopped garlic in a jamjar of oil and put it in the microwave. I couldn’t remember if you were meant to cover it or how long you put it in for. I was about to pick up the phone to call her when I remembered she was gone.

Poor As Church Mice

Grandma had grown up in a small village in China, the eldest daugher of Reverend Quek. When I learnt the phrase "poor as church mice" at school, I pictured the Quek family of mice in Swatow. She told us stories of cold winters and walking to school through the fields, drawing water from the well and sewing her own clothes.

Throughout her life, even after my grandfather’s success as a doctor gave the family a comfortable home, she was prudent with money and was shocked by extravagances. She did tasty things with leftovers and nagged us not to waste our food.

But there were also the stories of being top of her class at medical school, after the Quek family moved to Singapore where my great-grandfather was sent as a Presbyterian missionary, and being the first family in Taiping, where she and grandfather lived after they married, to buy an imported washing machine from abroad.

Taking a Stand at Age Seven

My grandfather was the love of her life and together they travelled in the West as much as they could and brought back with them to Malaysia, the latest ideas and innovations. My grandfather imported a car from America, bought a 16mm movie camera, mail-ordered books from England.

Grandma, blending innovation with her sensible nature, made dresses and shirts at home for her children based on the latest patterns and designs worn in America and England. Later on in her old age, she had a microwave and non-stick wok long before any of us "kids" did.

My favourite story about Grandma, though, is the one where she is still in Swatow, aged around seven. At her little village school, her teacher was unfairly dismissed by the headmistress - the reason behind it is now lost. Grandma was upset and wanted to make her protest known. She talked about it with her father and the Reverend said to her that she must act according to her conscience.

The next day, she led the whole school in a protest march to the next village. The teacher was reinstated. There is something modern, daring and powerful about this image of a little girl who had the courage to make a stand.

I used this story in THE FLAME TREE to show Jasmine’s strength of character. But I didn’t think readers would believe it if I made this happen when Jasmine was seven. So, in the fiction of the novel, I made her older!

A Recipe for Life

Grandma left us many recipes for dishes that have been in the family for years. They are old-fashioned and labour intensive, involving a lot of chopping and slicing and marinading to get just the right texture and just the right taste.

In truth, I don’t think I have the hours it can take to make many of them in their original form in my hectic life in London. But I can say that the most useful recipe Grandma left me is not really a dish but an attitude of mind.

It’s about adapting and innovating, taking what is safe and familiar and making it your own, moving with the times but on your own terms.

So here is the recipe that is Grandma’s legacy to me:

Take pieces of chicken, chopped garlic and ginger and place in an oven proof bowl. Mix in soy sauce and ginger wine and some pepper. Cover with a lid or tin foil. Put in oven and cook at 180 degrees for 1.5 hours, opening it in the last half hour to brown the chicken.

Serve with rice and pak choi fried with garlic and a dash of soy sauce.

Human input time: 20 mins. It certainly beats doing it the old fashioned way standing at the iron wok sweatily frying for ages and stinking up my home with grease and smoke! It tastes pretty good, too.