Remembering Ma on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother’s Day to my family, friends, and colleagues

Remembering you Ma for Mother’s Day!

Mom in her 20s

Ma in her 20s


Mother’s Day is coming soon and this year I have been thinking of my mom, Ma quite a bit. So I decided to take some of the stories of Ma from my cookbook, Flavors of Malaysia as a tribute to her. I celebrate this year’s Mother’s Day remembering her through my cookbook.

Ma (Pathmavathy Kumaran) was born in a suburb of Klang, Malaysia, went to Convent school in Klang, then to a teachers training college and became a teacher of English at the Methodist Girl’s School in Klang. She left her career after her fourth child was born, but later helped us tremendously with our English homework. I remember her as a kind person (she could not even kill an ant!), who was very understanding and encouraging to us. I never seen her being angry when some of us at times did not bring home good grades from school, nor forced us to perform any duties or chores at home.

She was also a gifted artist and I remember seeing her art book full of  colorful flowers. Her creative spirit had seeped into me and like her I enjoy painting and drawing. She had always encouraged me with my art. For her, following our passion was important, whether in the arts or sciences or whatever profession or skills. Thus she encouraged us when we wanted to travel afar for our studies, and never made us feel guilty for leaving her, or the home. Her patience and creative spirit truly must have helped her in raising us 9 children and especially in preparing the delicious meals for us each day! And her love for children knew no bounds! After we all grew up and went on our own, she wanted to adopt more!

From Flavors of Malaysia Cookbook

For me, I remember Ma as a creative cook and who exposed us to new dishes every week. Fussy about the flavor and quality, she would spend hours in the kitchen peeling shallots, which she considered more flavorful than onions, and inspecting and washing each sayur (greens) leaf. Instead of buying ready-made spice powders she dried her own spices and sent them to the mill to be freshly ground. She would tailor specific spice blends for her chicken, meat, vegetable, and fish curries. All of her ingredients had to be fresh and impeccably clean. Gosh she would have made a great sanitation specialist!

Ma took her time, like an artist with her canvas, tasting and perfecting each dish. She had to get that “perfect” taste. I remember many a time waiting hungrily for our lunch…sometimes past 2 pm! And each day Ma would also ask each of us what we wanted for the next day’s meal. Getting a consensus, she then created something different each day. Well… you can’t blame us for becoming “food snobs” at such an early age.

Ma’s gift for creating delicious dishes became renowned in the neighborhoods where we had lived. She cooked for local functions and voluntary organizations, but most of all I remember her glued to the radio listening to cooking shows, or clipping recipes from newspapers. In her later years she was confined to a wheelchair because of osteoarthritis, but she would still supervise the cook in the kitchen. She kept her old notes and clippings, some worn-out and tattered, hoping one day I would get my cookbook done. On my visits back home, Ma showed me how to cook many of the dishes in this cookbook.

She passed away in January of 2002. Each recipe in this cookbook is suffused with memories of her. A year before Ma passed away, she finally parted with her treasured mortar and pestle. Today, I use it to pound my spices (rempah). It is one of my greatest treasures! And whenever I use it to prepare recipes in this cookbook, memories come flooding back.

Mom at 16 in school uniform

Ma at 16 in school uniform

Ma’s favorite pastime and her other passion was—movies. When we were growing up, there was no television at home, and even later when Cha (my father) reluctantly installed it, we could only watch it during the weekends. However, Ma enjoyed movies especially Tamil and Hindi. Since Cha did not share this passion, she took my sister Vas and me along with her. We felt grown up riding in the trishaw and staying up late at the movie theater (way past 11 p.m.!). It was also our chance to spend time alone with Ma. The challenge for my mother every time she wanted to see a movie was how to prepare a tasty meal for her children and Cha before she left. Her answer many times was…. fried rice (nasi goreng). It was quick and easy to prepare because she sometimes could use left-over cooked white rice, left-over meat or chicken, any fresh vegetables that were available at hand, and her magical ingredient—eggs! During the movie, my mind sometimes wandered to “my share” of the fried rice that was hopefully waiting for me and not eaten by my brothers and their friends. On the ride back, I could almost taste the delicious fried rice!

Her favorite take-out was mee rebus and she had a special vendor in town for it, an Indian Muslim, located in Brickfields road, Kuala Lumpur. On some Sunday mornings, Ma would take my sister Vas and I by bus to see the oldie Hindi movies that played late mornings at the Lido cinema, at Brickfields Road in Kuala Lumpur. The Lido cinema is not there anymore. After the movie she would get some mee rebus from the Indian Muslim vendor so we can have it for late lunch or early dinner . I also remember the times when we wanted take-out stir fried rice noodles (char kway teow), when Ma would hand us some eggs for vendor to add to our noodles and specifically told us to say no to the added the fried pork fat or cockles (kerang) as she did not like these.

Ma usually prepared her chicken dishes with free-range kampung ayam (village chicken). And whenever one of us had a fever or was sick, Ma would prepare kampung ayam for soup or porridge. I also remember Ma would not eat chicken without its bones. Even in her later years when the doctor advised her to eat a blander diet with slightly seasoned sliced chicken breast, she simply would not eat it unless it was drumstick, wings or thighs… and tastily prepared. It was tough arguing with her over this!

When we lived in Kuantan, on the East Coast of Malaysia, Ma raised chickens for meat and eggs. She was quite an entrepreneur in those days and wanted to have her own egg business, along with running a household of 9 children. We had a huge enclosed back porch where the chickens would sometimes roam. At first we were scared of the hens, but slowly got used to them. Eventually, we would chase the hens and roosters around and play with the baby chicks, allowing them to walk over our heads and hands. Thus we grew to adore the chickens and would not eat them. So Ma abandoned the idea of raising them for meat and kept them for eggs. When the eggs were laid we would collect them for her and enjoyed holding the warm eggs in our hands. She made a small business of selling the eggs to neighbors and vendors. When we moved to Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, and a thriving industrial center, she continued her egg business for a few more years, even selling to the door-to-door Chinese vendor. Eventually she gave it up as we got older.

Ma also made delicious scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, chilies, and seasonings, and a wonderful egg curry using hard-boiled eggs. It was a legacy from her mom, Periama, a Chettiar. Like many Hindu Indians, Ma set aside one day of the week for prayers and thus to eat vegetarian meals, but Cha and us children did not observe this as strictly as Ma did. So for us, Ma also cooked egg curries and egg sambals with lentil and other vegetable dishes. She encouraged religious practices with us but never forced it on us. She was rather open regarding different religions and had sent us to Catholic schools thinking their education was better, as well as for us to learn some spiritual practices, whether Hinduism or Catholic. Its amazing  how open minded she was with regards to the various religions as she was brought up a Hindu. I always felt she was more spiritual than religious, having watched her reading with passion the philosophers, Vivekananda, Sivananda or Krishnamurti.

Ma in garden

Ma in garden

Ma did not eat beef or pork, but she created this mouth-watering chile pepper-and-soy sauce-based pork preparation called cili (chilly or chilli) pork that we all savored. She also flavored it with rice wine and ginger juice that tenderized the pork. I remember at the meal table, we used to fight for a larger share of cili pork. So to be fair, Ma would place our share right on our plates before we sat down to eat. My siblings and I unanimously voted for this dish to be in the cookbook, a strong reminder of Ma and our meals together. This was truly a challenge for me, to re-create Ma’s recipe. And the end result will take us down memory lane and surely put a smile on all our lips!

With seafood, Ma’s famous creation is her curried crab, delicious and fragrant! Everyone loved it! She also liked squid and usually prepared it spicy with chilies and spices as a dry curry or as a sambal. Unlike squid, Ma was not a fan of some shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, so they were generally not served at home. Sambal tumis udang (stir fried shrimp sambal) is one of our family’s favorite dishes. To make it, shallots are a must and Ma, Periama(Grandma) or the help would sit for hours in the kitchen peeling them. When I asked Ma why she didn’t use big onions so there was less to peel (as I would), she would say that the dish would not taste the same. Ah…such perfection! Each time Ma ‘tumised’ the spicy sauce (slow-stirring technique that takes away the raw notes and releases a wonderful aroma to the sauce), its aroma filled the whole house. Nothing could keep me away from her aromatic chicken or shrimp sambal, not even playtime with friends. Ma prepared her sambal without belacan (fermented krill paste) and yet it was equally delicious. In those days, she watched belacan being prepared along dusty roadsides with villagers stomping on them, and this must have turned her off as she would not use it in her sambals.

I also remember Ma had a vegetable garden at the back of our home in Kuantan and grew some vegetables she enjoyed—long green beans, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, greens and chilies. I remember vividly my Periama’s visits because she would prepare drumstick curry and spicy bitter gourd, both of which were not our favorites, but Ma and Periama enjoyed them for their health benefits as well. Like typical children everywhere, we did not like eating vegetables that had a bitter taste. But we all enjoyed Ma’s stir-fried white cabbage at least once a week. When I make it now, I think of Ma in the kitchen, stirring her cabbage in a large wok. Sometimes she would add an egg or two to provide more protein in our diet. Along with spices she would add a little soy sauce, tomatoes, and sometimes pounded dried shrimp. Ma would prepare greens quite often and served them with dhal curry and chicken varuval or fried fish. I would watch with amazement as Ma painstakingly washed each leaf to make sure there was no dirt or sand or other defects before she cooked them. Long green beans was another vegetable Ma would cook regularly, dicing the beans into ½-inch pieces and sometimes adding scrambled eggs or fresh shrimp.

Ma did not like us to drink sodas or gaseous carbonated drinks such as orangeade or cherryade very often, as she thought they were not good for us, and it also got expensive with 9 of us! But it was a treat to have cold ginger ale when we got sick. I remember Ma giving us a warm glass of Ovaltine or Horlicks before we went to bed or as a pick me- up in between meals. Today, when we go to eat at food stalls or homes, I often order a cold glass of Milo which surprisingly goes well with a spicy plate of mee goreng. Ma made the best tea, an opinion voiced by many of our friends and relatives who could not resist her tea. Ma boiled the tea leaves in water, strained them, and then added condensed milk, which gave her tea a rich, smooth flavor. Even after living many years in the U.S. and never adding sugar to my teas, whenever I went home, I fell a prey to Ma’s sweet, creamy tea. She just smiled to see me enjoy her tea again.

I have wonderful memories of our Deepavali celebration with my parents and siblings. Ma and Periama began their food preparations a few weeks earlier, cleaning the home, getting new curtains and sofa covers. This was the time we all got new clothes to wear and show-off. And we avoided going to buy our clothes with my father but somehow we ended up going with him to buy our shoes….the same plain leather shoes that would last us some years! Mom was different as I think she was more trendy for her time and liked to dress us fashionably! And I remember when we were rather young, she used to sew us girls very trendy dresses with her Singer sewing machine. She had a great sense of fashion and was beyond her times. She could also have been a fashion designer as she loved to create new designs.

I remember the activity in the kitchen during Deepavali, long into the early hours of morning, with Ma and Periama preparing all kinds of sweets and snacks, such as rose kueh (rose-shaped cookie), icing-coated wheat-based cruellers, murukku, and other shelf stable sweets that were stored in containers for the special day. This began the Deepavali mood for us. We would try to sneak into the kitchen and taste some of the sweets and snacks being prepared. On the night before the great day, our excitement kept us awake. The next morning we would wake up at sunrise to take our baths and dress in new attire to mark the special day. By 9 a.m., the house was already filled with aromas coming from the kitchen, where Ma and Periama had begun to prepare the dishes.

While Ma and Periama spent the morning busily preparing delicious dishes, we would sit in the living room, waiting excitedly for our friends. The celebrations began as soon as they arrived. We started with snacks then came the iddiappam (extruded rice-based stringhoppers), ghee rice, chicken kurma, mutton peratil, stir-fried mixed vegetables, and lastly the sweets, both homemade and store-bought. Once our friends left late in the afternoon, the celebration began for our parents and their friends and colleagues. So Ma once again was in the kitchen, preparing more or heating up dishes. I never heard her complain the whole day…she just wanted us to be happy. That’s Ma! Love you Ma for all you have done for us!

Here is a recipe from Flavors of Malaysia that Ma had cooked for us and which inspired me.

Stir-fried Sambal Shrimp (Sambal Tumis Udang)           Susheela Raghavan Flavors of Malaysia


Shrimp Sambal

Shrimp Sambal

Makes 3 to 4 servings
1 pound (about 2 heaping cups) shelled and deveined shrimp, tails intact
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
¼ cup cooking oil
1 cup (6 ounces) chopped and pureed tomatoes, or 1/2 cup tomato paste, or 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate or tamarind juice extracted from pulp
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Spice Paste:
2 tablespoons sliced garlic cloves
1 teaspoon sliced fresh ginger
2 cups sliced shallots or onions
6 to 12 whole dried red chilies (depending on desired heat), steeped in hot water for 5 to 8 minutes, slit and deseeded; or 1½ to 3 tablespoon cili boh or ¾ to 1½ tablespoons bottled sambal olek
4 to 6 fresh milder red chilies (Fresno, cayenne, or cherry), deseeded and sliced
1 lemongrass stalk, sliced into ¼ to 1/2-inch pieces
Optional: 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (belacan), toasted at 400°F for 15 minutes
¼ cup water

Spice Blend:
2 teaspoons coarsely pounded or ground fennel seeds
1 star anise
1-inch cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves (cilantro) or Kaffir lime leaves
1. Rub shrimp with turmeric. Set aside.
2. Process Spice Paste ingredients to a coarse or smooth paste.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or skillet and sauté the Spice Blend ingredients for about ½ minute.
4. Add remaining oil and the Spice Paste and cook, stirring, for about 8 to 10 minutes, till the oil seeps out. (This is when the spice paste gets to its optimum fragrance. But you can always add less oil and stir for less time and still achieve a wonderful flavor.)
5. Stir in the tomato puree, sauce, or paste (if using paste add 2 to 4 tablespoons of water), tamarind juice, sugar, and salt and sauté for another 3 to 5 minutes.
6. Add the seasoned shrimp and stir for about 4 minutes, till shrimp are cooked and coated well with sauce.
7. Garnish with coriander leaves or Kaffir lime leaves.

Categories: curries, Journeys, Malaysia, Malaysian cuisine, Spotlight, Tastes, Traditions, trend


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4 Comments on “Remembering Ma on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014”

  1. carmen.delguercio.evans
    May 9, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Such wonderful stories, and great memories.  We are all sad thinking of our moms at this time of the year. All I can say is that we were lucky.  Thanks for sharing.

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S™ III, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  2. maria mercedes bejarano
    May 10, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    Sushee .. It is an honor to know your mother .You are like her .. Thank you for introducing her ..Bless your food and art my beloved friend ..

  3. May 10, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    Dear Maria…thanks! And a Very Happy Mother’s day!

  4. May 10, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Dear Carmen…yes we are lucky! Thanks for sharing too! Happy Mother’s day!

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