Leaving a legacy of Eurasian cooking
JEANNE Pereira’s home is as warm and welcoming as she is, and she speaks like she’s known this writer all her life.
In a sense she does, as we both have one thing in common – our Eurasian background. While Eurasians don’t really have a culture, unlike the Malays, Chinese and Indians, and some fall back on their Portuguese roots, a lot of Eurasian homes have similar food and dishes on the dinner and Christmas table.
Eurasians, it has been known, love two things – food and a good party.
Cooking is in Pereira’s genes – both her maternal and paternal grandparents and her mum were good cooks. They passed on a love for Eurasian cooking to her, although she admits only learning to cook after she got married.
“As a young girl, I had no idea at all how to cook because my mum never wanted us in the kitchen. I was the only daughter and she was an excellent cook herself, but I don’t think she had teaching skills. She just knew how to do things.
“I learnt to cook at about the age of 19. I got married very early and I realised I had to feed my family. Then only I went back and learnt to cook from my mum. By that time, she was willing to teach me,” says Pereira, who has four brothers and three stepbrothers.
Coming from a big family, there was always a lot of food at home and in both grandparents’ homes.
Her paternal grandmother would cook Portuguese dishes and they would even make their own rempah (spice mix) for dishes like mulligatawny and feng – which you can’t get here, especially for the Eurasian cuisine.
Meanwhile, her maternal grandmother would have very English food on the table. There would be things like hams and smoked haddock.
“We had a very good mix. Whenever I tell people that for Christmas we had ham and all the English food, they can’t believe it, and ask if I’m mat salleh (caucasian).
“We were not mat salleh, but we had those traditions. Those days we had to have the pie and the capon, which is a castrated chicken, which nowadays is so expensive. We had to have the leg of lamb, turkey …. All these were ‘musts’. But, in the other grandmother’s house, it was feng and, after New Year, we had mulligatawny soup …. So, we were very lucky because we had a nice variety of dishes.
“The desserts were the same – sugee cake, tarts, fruit cake and trifles,” informs Pereira, who grew up in Singapore.
She spent many years cooking for her family and although she never worked as a chef, she taught cooking for the ladies of the British army when the family was in Surrey, in the UK, in the early-80s.
However, she insists that she is no chef.
“I wouldn’t call myself a chef. I’m a good cook. A chef needs to have a degree, although I know chefs who can’t do anything apart from what they have learnt.
“I’m proud to say that I can do more than some of them,” says Pereira, 68.
Although she loves food, Pereira admits to not having any one favourite dish. Right now, she seems to have a preference for Malay cuisine which she finds interesting because of its variety of dishes and styles of cooking.
What would typically be on her table at Christmas?
Pereira reveals she would usually have a leg of lamb, ham, Eurasian pickles, feng, devil curry (although she would avoid having it on Christmas Day if possible because traditionally this was a dish that used leftover meats and hence it was not eaten on Christmas Day), salads, trifle, sugee cake and caramel custard.
The turkey is omitted these days because her children find it too rich.
“I enjoy cooking so I still cook for the whole family and my daughters will help me. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll divide up the dishes between me and my daughters.
“It’s fun but tiring. So what I do now is to pace myself. I would do the desserts earlier and what I can cook earlier, I would cook earlier. Everything else will be cooked on the day itself.
“Actually, I like to cook, it’s just the body that is complaining a bit,” says Pereira.
While she is a whiz in the kitchen, she admits preferring cooking, over baking.
“Cooking is more forgiving. Baking … if you go wrong, you’re dead. You just have to throw it or convert it to trifle. I think that’s how trifle originated as well,” she says laughing.
“With cooking I have no problem. I can do that. But when it comes to baking it’s a different story because it’s very precise, and I’m not that kind of person. So, it’s a little bit difficult for me, and I get disappointed easily. If I make a pastry and it doesn’t turn out well, I’m not happy to try it again because of the old school upbringing – it’s wasteful. So, I don’t want to try it again,” says Pereira, who authored the book Cooking Without Borders – Defining Eurasian Cuisine in 2013.
The book, she says, is her legacy.
“My mother left nothing. My grandparents left nothing. And, they were wonderful cooks. Where have all the recipes gone? You get little scraps of paper here and there. So, I thought, okay, whatever I know and whatever my living cousins today know, let’s put it down in a book,” she explains.
It took her two years to complete the book. Being a very visual cook, Pereira is not one for precise measurements so it took some time to get all the measurements right for the recipes in the book.
There is no mention of Portuguese cooking in the book because Pereira admits, like many Eurasians, she is not sure what her real background is. Hence the title of the book.
“We have so many recipes which we have taken or adopted from the Chinese, Malays and Indians, all the good stuff …. You must take the good stuff and do something. If you stay with your hundred-year-old recipe, how much improvement do you get?
“In a sense these recipes are what I was brought up with. This was how my mother cooked, this was how my father’s family cooked, and, this is how I have influenced the recipes with my own touch,” says Pereira.
She agrees it is important to leave a legacy behind while the community still remembers these old recipes.
Pereira says it is important to be able to cook these dishes because you can’t get some of them in any restaurant.
“If you don’t have the recipe, how are you going to cook it?” she quips, cheerfully.
Pereira says she holds back nothing in her recipes. “There’s nothing hidden. If it’s a mistake in the recipe, it’s either a genuine mistake or you didn’t read it right. I have done it to the best of my ability and honesty,” she says.
According to her son Charles, some readers who tried out the recipes were very happy with it and in fact, some even ordered more books for friends and family.
If there is one unusual recipe that Pereira is proud of in the book, it is feng – a thick and dry pork curry.
“Feng is one of the unusual dishes in the book. Almost nobody makes feng anymore, unless you have old people in your home,” says Pereira, who has two daughters, two sons and six grandkids.
She was pleased this past Christmas, when she asked her grandchildren what they wanted to eat for Christmas and they said feng.
For Pereira, it signified the tradition of old Eurasian dishes will live on.