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Postcard from Zaharah: Stirring sweet memories

LONDON: I WAS introduced to Madam Chang's kaya when it came in Ping Coombe's Cookaway box. The rich taste and silky smooth texture of the gula melaka kaya on toast were enough to remind me of home. When I scraped the jar clean, I knew I had to find Madam Chang for more.

Soon Ae Mi, 35, is Madam Chang's granddaughter and we agreed to meet at Morden tube station. She was as bubbly as she sounded when we spoke on the phone, with an easy smile and an infectious laugh.

When we got to her house, three kaya mix on double boilers were already quietly simmering on slow fire — one a pandan concoction, one with gula melaka and the last was meant for the Blackthorn durian that was still in the fridge.

The house which she shares with husband Soon Wei Chieh was quiet and calm, a labour of love by the person blessed with prosperous abundance of patience.

The three double boilers, said Ae Mi, had been on the stove for three hours. There will be about 10 more hours of slowly adding flavours and vigorously stirring.

"This is my grandmother's recipe," said the law graduate and a mother of two.

She added two ladles full of pandan juice into the mix and memories of her grandmother flooded in her mind.

The air was rich with the aroma of kaya that came from the double boilers and the memories of Madam Chang came alive, which Ae Mi cherished and honour.

Ae Mi wanted to give a strong voice to Madam Chang — a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a man whose affection was promised to someone else.

"She was such a wonderful cook and a wonderful grandmother. She brought up five children and provided for her family in ways that she could.

"My father used to tell me stories of her selling pandan leaves in the market. She would only have tap water for breakfast because that was all she could afford. After selling her leaves, she would go around the market to pick discarded vegetable that was still good such as cabbages or other types of vegetables that she could feed her family," said Ae Mi, the memories surging fast.

Sadly, memories of being with her beloved grandmother Ah Ma Chang Choy Lin or Madam Chang were very little when she died at the age of 71 while Ae Mi was still young.

There were memories of her grandmother making the kaya, a legacy passed on to her father, a remisier in Ipoh. It is more of stirring the kaya mixture with her father that she remembers the most.

By giving the kaya spread the brandname Madam Chang, Ae Mi feels that she is finally giving voice to her grandmother.

She knows that her grandmother would be proud of the 3 Star award given to the product by Britain's Fine Food Guild recently.

Madam Chang's kaya came into fruition in December last year. After a few futile attempts from a friend's kaya recipe to make kaya roll, she decided to revive her grandmother's recipe. Not only did she perfect it, she also added flavours such as durian, rum and even created a vegan variety . She is not stopping there and now wants to experiment with more flavours.

Speaking about the 3 Star award, Ae Mi said she and her husband were surprised as the pandan flavour actually had divided opinions from the panel of judges.

"Some didn't quite like the colour and the aftertaste, but some really liked it," she said, displaying the certificate that she received.

The Fine Food Guild Awards is an annual event that sees thousands of food product entries submitted, with only about 200 receiving the 3 Star award.

"Actually there were many other Malaysian participants who won. It has been a good year for Malaysian participants," Ae Mi said.

She is now making preparations for a trade fair to showcase her product that is becoming quite popular with not just the Malaysians and Singaporeans but also the locals.

Ae Mi said her culinary skills were honed from the time she was young and she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen.

"When I was 4, I was entrusted with the cleaver to cut open the durian," she laughed, adding that her own mother had no clue how to crack open the durian.

With her Blackthorn durian kaya, I believe Ae Mi has hit the jackpot.

Undoubtedly, Madam Chang would be proud to see her name on this jar of great flavours, which has now become my own little secret because I have to hide it from my family.

I hope to see Madam Chang kaya jars on local supermarket shelves soon so that I can enjoy it to my heart's content.

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