Sunday Vibes

Dr Lee Su Kim steps back in time to her childhood Lunar New Year celebrations when Nyonyas ruled the kitchen!

HER face half-bathed in the shadows coupled with the hypnotic pelting of the rain outside adds strange life to her recollection. "The kitchen was filled with people," she begins, as she settles down on the couch.

I could almost hear the clangs of pots and pans, and the heated conversations rising above the sizzle of frying meat on the blackened wok. A sixth generation Nyonya and Peranakan activist, Dr Lee Su Kim smooths down her red kebaya absentmindedly, her eyes faraway as she recalls her childhood.

All around us are vestiges from her past — antique cupboards, sepia-toned pictures of family and shelves heaving with books. You could catch a glimpse of her hybrid life through the interesting mixture of old and new furnishings, including a beautifully crafted cupboard packed with ceramics.

The colourful plates, cups and pots, 'Nyonyaware', are characterised by vivid enamelled tints on a brilliantly painted background, and beautifully decorated with flowers and phoenixes.

"I've collected these over the years," she shares. A little bright green teapot, beautifully emblazoned with flowers, catches my eye. "That belonged to my grandmother," says Lee, smiling.

It's a home filled with memories, many of which still resides — alive and vibrant — within Lee's memories.

It was a simple enough question. As Lee laid down plates heaped with jam tarts and peanut cookies, along with mugs of black kopi, I asked: "What do you remember of your childhood during Chinese New Year?"

Lee smiles. She doesn't answer at once.

"Oh, it was very grand!" she finally replies with a wistful smile.


For billions of people across Asia and in Asian diaspora communities around the world, last weekend marked the beginning of the Lunar New Year celebrations, marking the end of the Zodiac year of the Tiger, and ushering in the Year of the Rabbit.

For the first few days, commercial activity slows or stops, as people gather with their families. The holiday is steeped in tradition, with a focus on family, food, reflection and looking forward.

"It was the same when I was a child," she agrees.

With maternal links to the Penang Peranakans and paternal links to the Melakan Baba and Nyonya community, Lee was raised in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

"My mother was a very good cook and a Nyonya. She loved to cook so it was celebrated in a very grand way. We lived with my father's parents so we used to get a lot of visitors," she recalls.

On the first day, the oldest and most senior members will be visited, with the visits serving to strengthen family ties. Bai nian refers to both, pay a New Year's call as well as "wishing somebody a Happy New Year".

Preparations, shares Lee, usually begin a month before the actual celebrations. "The usual spring cleaning, changing of curtains, mopping, sweeping, cleaning… these go on weeks before Chinese New Year. My mum would start preparing and baking pineapple tarts," Lee shares.

Her mother would go to the market and buy pineapples to begin the laborious task of making the pineapple jam from scratch. The smell of pineapples would permeate the house.

"Oh, the smell! I remember the delicious smell!" she enthuses gleefully. Lee and her siblings would be roped in to help roll up the pastry and use a serrated knife to cut and create the delicate latticework on top of the tarts.

"I still remember the delicacy of each small piece with the sweet and fruity filling on the top, covered by a thin latticework of pastry that made them (almost) too pretty to be eaten," she adds. Her mother would also bake trays and trays of kuih bangkit for the New Year.

Meaning "to rise", the name kuih bangkit was derived from how the cookies would rise during the baking process. Depending on the texture and recipe, flours like arrowroot, tapioca or sago are used alongside ingredients such as coconut milk and pandan.

These melt-in-your-mouth delights were originally made for altar offerings used for ancestral worship. They were moulded into various shapes and take on different meanings. For instance, the chrysanthemums symbolise good fortune, while goldfish-shaped cookies meant prosperity.

Continues Lee: "My mother had these lovely wooden moulds that were used to form the kuih bangkit into dragons, rabbits, monkeys — the animals in the zodiac!" Before putting them into the oven, Lee and her siblings would use a toothpick dipped in red food dye to dot the "eyes" of the cookies.

"It was a painstaking job that required gentleness and finesse," recalls Lee, adding: Anything than less than a delicate touch would result in a red splotch on the cookie. My stern grandmother would then remove the ear digger from her sanggul to poke our fingers!"

A couple of weeks before Chinese New Year, her mother, family members that included Lee's aunt and a host of helpers, would get together to prepare all the food from scratch. "Watching such activity, my siblings and I knew that delicious food would come off the assembly line of busy hands along with the myriad of other food products," says Lee.

Butter cakes, acar awak (pickled vegetables including thinly julienned carrots, French beans, cabbage which are mildly spiced, sourish and with a tinge of sweetness), prawn crackers, kuih kapit were prepared with the same meticulous care with the assistance of close relatives and amahs. In the days leading to the New Year, dishes like ayam pongteh, itik tim soup, chicken curry, and pork liver balls and so much more would be prepared in that bustling kitchen.

"You don't just eat the food, you eat the meaning," she points out, referring to much of the dishes, which are selected for their double meanings signifying both food and good fortune.


The heartbeat of any Peranakan home is the kitchen, says Lee. The kitchen was where the women in Lee's family would spend most of their time — cooking, chatting and bonding over shared experiences, stories and gossips in their local creole, Baba Malay. This is where the matriarch (Lee's grandmother) would be instructing her dutiful daughter-in-law on cooking techniques and family recipes.

"If the kitchen was the heartbeat, then my mother," says Lee, "was the heart. She put in all her efforts, love and soul into meticulously preparing, cooking and serving while my grandmother supervised."

On the eve of Chinese New Year, the family would gather to honour the ancestors before the reunion dinner commenced. A table would be laid out and feast of dishes served up to honour and welcome the spirits of the ancestors back home.

The ritual, known as sembahyang abu was done on the eve, where joss sticks would be lit and the ancestors' names entreated to return and feast upon the offerings laid on the table.

"As a child, I was so intrigued by this, wondering if they're really there to feast on the food. 'I can't see them!' I'd protest. To make sure that they'd finished feasting, two coins would be tossed. If both coins landed heads up or tails up, it meant that the ancestors weren't done yet. However, if one landed on heads and the other on tails, it signified that the ancestors were done with their meal!" she says, chuckling.

Lee's family would gather together for the grand reunion dinner after that. "This is something that's really special about Chinese New Year. The concept of bringing family together for a meal is a tradition that I'm happy to see withstand the test of time," she says.

Family is the basis of Chinese society, as seen through the significance placed on the New Year's Eve dinner (Nian yefan) or reunion dinner (tuan nianfan). For Peranakan families like Lee's, the concept of family and filial piety are important, and such traditions that exemplify them are carried out meticulously.

This includes a unique practice called Seroja, which highlights the Peranakan community's culture of respecting their elders. On the morning of Chinese New Year, the children would go down on their knees and honour their elders.

"The oldest would be seated, and the younger ones would kneel down and serve tea to their parents and grandparents, and they'd give you an angpow!" she explains.


"It's not the same anymore," laments Lee, adding: "Many of these traditions have faded with time. It's not as grand and merry as it used to be…" The house seems strangely empty after Lee recounts her childhood celebrations. It's certainly not the same.

"When you've reached a certain age, many aunties and people of that generation are no longer here. They've all but gone, and with them, many traditions, recipes and stories," she says softly.

Lee admits to taking her culture for granted when she was young. "It didn't seem important then," she confesses, adding: "Many of the food I grew up with, I didn't know how to make them. My mother told me to focus on my studies and make something of myself. She didn't want me to be confined to the kitchen," she recalls.

With modernisation and emancipation, the skies' the limit for the Nyonyas of Lee's generation. But it's a double-edged sword, she says. "When you've got freedom, you want to break through the ceiling. We didn't want to learn how to embroider, stay in the kitchen and bake cookies! Many of us didn't have the homemaking skills of our mothers because we were always told to get out of the kitchen, study and make something of ourselves!"

Identity is such that when you're young, you're not really bothered about it, she acknowledges. "When I was young, my mother wanted to give me her beautiful intan (diamond) pendant. I didn't want it then because it was so 'old fashioned'. I regret that decision now!" she exclaims, chuckling. "As I grew older, I started thinking about continuity and legacy."

Over time, Lee and her mother became closer. "Our relationship grew and evolved. We became more than just 'mother and daughter'. We were friends." But the family soon was given grave news.

Her mother, the keeper of many wonderful Peranakan recipes, was diagnosed with cancer. Her voice growing low with emotion, Lee continues: "I always thought she'd live up to her 80s. Suddenly I was confronted with the fact that time was running out. I won't be having my mother around for much longer. It hit me hard."

Lee decided to learn her mother's recipes; a legacy she wanted her mother to leave behind. "Nyonyas don't write down recipes at all. Everything's in the head. Everything is 'agak-agak' (estimate)."

Chuckling softly, she continues: "Agak-agak is a very kind word. It takes years of practise, experience and intuition to reach the stage of agak-agak. I realised she's such a good cook and if I don't write everything down, it will all just go away. My mother also realised it. She'd say, 'Su Kim, come! Bring your notebook! Write it down!'" she recalls.

She started writing down the recipes and learning how to cook from her mother. "Luckily, I learnt these recipes and learnt how to cook from my mother before she left. I was in my 30s," says Lee quietly.

"Do you cook?" She asks me suddenly.

"Very badly," I confess, adding: "Now that you're telling me this, I must go back home and write down my mother's recipes!"

We both laugh.

Outside, the skies suddenly clear. The rain has stopped. "Come! Makan!" she entreats, pushing the plate of jam tarts towards me. Our conversation subsides as we eat jam tarts and drink kopi O.

Food, tradition, family, love — they're all deeply entrenched in the memories of this sixth-generation Nyonya who continues to hold on to a cultural identity with a complicated and tenuous relationship to race, unanchored by religion, shared language and social status, difficult to pin down and inevitably vulnerable to disappearance.

But as long as Lee continues to advocate, teach, write, talk about her heritage and cook the recipes of her youth, memories of her family, especially her mother, will continue to live on. After all, stories never die and food will always be a language that everyone understands.

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