Many Asian parents show their love through food. Have you ever suddenly craved your mother’s chicken curry or a comfort food she used to make? Do some foods trigger memories of your childhood or is it just food to you?
The food we eat today as Australians is becoming more multicultural than ever. Some dishes may not even exist in any recipe book and are simply passed down from generation to generation. In the spirit of Mother’s Day approaching, we spoke to four Asian Australians about food that reminds them of their mothers.
Cindy from Burma
When Cindy thinks of her mother, she thinks of a Burmese dish called Chin Maung Kyaw. Translated into English, it is stir-fried roselle leaves – basically a sour spinach dish.
It has a very unique taste which reminds Cindy of her days back in Burma when she lived together with her parents and grandparents. Her mother would add Cindy’s favourite vegetable – okra – into it, making the dish extra special.
Today, Cindy still makes the dish for her husband and children. “As we stay further and further from our homeland, traditional food has become something that we hold on to dearly and can pass on to the next generation.”
Chin Maung Kyaw recipe
- 1 bunch of roselle leaves
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1 large onion, minced
- 10 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 Thai chilies, chopped
- 4 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp pounded dried shrimp
- 1 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- One can of shredded bamboo shoots, drained
- One bunch of cilantro, chopped
- Salt to taste
- Remove the stems of the roselle leaves.
- Heat up the oil in a wok. Add onion, garlic, chillies and tomato. Stir until tomato breaks down.
- Add turmeric, dried shrimp, roselle leaves and 1 tablespoon of water.
- When the roselle leaves turn soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots. Cover and simmer for about 10-15 minutes.
- Season with fish sauce and serve with cilantro.
Lalin from Malaysia
Lalin was born on the island of Penang in Malaysia where there is a large Hokkien community. During Chinese New Year, a very special dish her mother would make is Joo Hoo Char.
Joo Hoo means dried cuttlefish in Hokkien and Char means to fry. The main ingredient in the dish however is jicama or white turnip. But without the cuttlefish, the dish would not be the same.
Joo Hoo Char is not easy to make as there is a lot of slicing and cutting involved. But the recipe has been in Lalin’s family for generations, passed down from her grandmother to her mother and now to her.
Joo Hoo Char is traditionally eaten as a filling with fresh lettuce. But you can also eat it with hot steamed rice. Many people say it tastes better the next day when all the flavours and juices have seeped into the turnip overnight.
Joo Hoo Char recipe
- 1 turnip
- 2 carrots
- 4-5 stalks of Chinese celery
- 300 grams of three-layer pork
- 5 Chinese dried shitake mushroom, soaked till softened
- 1 tablespoon of Tauchu (fermented bean paste)
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 50g sliced dried squid
- Parboil the pork and cut it into tiny slices.
- Slice or julienne turnip, carrots, celery and mushrooms.
- Heat oil and stir fry garlic and dried squid until the squid smells fragrant.
- Add the pork, fermented bean paste and mushroom.
- Add the turnip, carrot and Chinese celery.
- Add pepper and a dash of sugar.
- Keep stirring until dry.
Somjit from Thailand
For Somjit, a favourite recipe of her mother’s is not a typical dish but more of a condiment. And what a condiment it is. Nam Prik Pao or Thai Chilli Paste is a chilli dip that makes everything taste good.
It can go with any Thai dish such as Thai style fried egg, boiled eggs, or any kind of vegetable. “The freshness of the chilli paste she makes is amazing,” says Somjit. “It increases the appetite and clears up my throat and nose when I have a cold.”
There is no written recipe for Somjit’s mother’s Nam Prik Pao and even until today, Somjit can’t get it to taste the same way. Basically, you need to roast the chilli, onion, garlic and shrimp paste; then ground it together using mortar and pestle. “No blender as the texture won't be the same!” she adds.
The chilli paste tastes sweet (from palm sugar), sour (from the tamarind), salty (from the fish sauce) and spicy (from the Thai chillis). For even more flavour, her mother adds fried chicken into the paste.
Nam Prik Pao brings back a lot of memories for Somjit. “When I was young, I was always away from my hometown as I studied and worked in Bangkok,” she says. “Every time I went back home, Mum always made this chilli paste for me to bring back to university.”
We don’t have the Nam Prik Pao recipe and if you do an internet search, you’ll see that not many people do. But here are some of the main ingredients usually used: large Thai red chilis, garlic, onion, dried shiitake mushrooms, light brown sugar, tamarind paste, distilled white vinegar.
May from Malaysia
May’s mum is not the cooking type but one thing that reminds her of her childhood is Hup Seng cream crackers. Her grandmother used to prepare it as a tea time snack when she got home from school. She would have it dipped into Milo.
Most people would eat it plain or maybe spread with kaya. Her grandmother used to serve it with marmalade and cheese.
Today, May sometimes gets a craving for it and will make a special trip to the Asian grocer to get some. “I’ve tried normal crackers from the supermarket but nothing beats Hup Seng crackers. I like how they melt in your mouth.”
“I never thought food was that important. But now that I am older I find that a lot of my memories about my childhood are related to food. My children are also exposed to it and I find that helps keep our culture going.”