It just sat there for decades. In a corner by a screened window, a dark brown kitchen cabinet filled with jars of biscuits, bottles of soy sauce, fish sauce, a jar of salt, pepper, a jar of honey and some granulated coffee amidst a stack of paper napkins, a thermos of hot water and a bunch of bananas.
In that cabinet was my lola’s (grandmother’s) recipe box.
Lola Na (short for Nena) was my grandaunt, a very eccentric recluse of a woman who was actually the sister of my grandmother. She saw no one other than the small family that we were, who would come visit while she was still alive. A spinster, she lived with my grandparents and my jolly grandaunt, Lola Da (Dada).
Lola Na never worked outside of the house but just stood over a stove all day. That was her work, her career, her life. To make food for the only family she had. When she passed on, she had nothing to her name — except this wooden box of recipes she left behind. This is the very box I would see on the dining room table during Christmas as Lola Ma (my mom’s mom) made her signature fruitcake.
To be honest, I do not like fruitcake — but I do like smelling it.
Brings such happy memories of when my grandparents were all alive — back when people still spoke to each other.
Dates, spices, sugar and brandy — these are the scents that the box still carry today, decades later, long after the last fruit cake was made.
Over the years, I scribbled recipes on random sheets of scratch paper and tried to remember dishes over and over again each time I misplaced the last one I scribbled it on. When the box came into my possession, I started consuming the now-browned but blank index cards my lola left behind inside. I realize the limited leftovers were running out later on. I needed something of my own on which to store my own concoctions. And there it was — a black spiral notebook I’ve had for sometimes, stashed in a box, unused. This notebook has a bit of sentimental value as this was the present given to the very first batch of faculty when the premier culinary school, Enderun Colleges, was launched years ago.
When I came to Singapore, I started using this very notebook when I began to bake, recipes properly documented with exact measurements. Eventually, I started to document even the old dishes I would cook which I would put together from memory. Almost two years living in this country, I noticed that I’m down to only a few more pages. I actually stressed about this because I am particular with notebook cover, line spacing, paper stock and spiral binding.
Yes, there are people who think about these things when buying something as mundane as a notebook
My penmanship is big and spiral binding is crucial for anyone who knows how difficult it is to cook while reading a recipe from a book that keeps wanting to close! And the cover also matters if you’re constantly touching the recipe book with wet or greasy hands.
We invited our friend Len one day for dinner and she asked what she could bring over. I said to bring whatever she wants and that I don’t really eat desserts. When she arrived, she had brought an answer to a prayer: a new (and artful!) recipe book!
Strangely, I was just looking at a book “The Geometry Of Pasta” on Amazon (and I pored through it simply because of its groovy cover!) a week prior, one which had a very similar cover design and concept to Len’s gift
Sufficient paper stock, large spiral binding and ample line spacing — perfect recipe book! (THANK YOU, LEN!) I am actually very excited to finish the remaining pages of my Enderun recipe book and start on this new one.
Speaking of recipes, why did I call it my grandmother’s “mystery box”?
One big reason is this: none of the dishes she made through the decades are written anywhere in those cards.
And yes, the flavors continue in my own kitchen — food whispered on the hands of my mother, who prepare the same dishes when I was growing up, the same blessing of food that now courses through my veins.
Was I pulled aside to be taught how to cook? Not at all. On the contrary, my Lola Na wanted no one in her kitchen while she worked (the same quirk I have when I’m cooking as well). My mom, on the other hand, taught me how to choose ingredients in the market and prepare these prior to cooking i.e. mince garlic, dice onions, clean a fish (a task I hated most). Amidst the two busy kitchens, I was never mandated to stand and watch.
I just started cooking because that is just the way of life everyday for these two women I lived with, a groove that grew on me and a rhythm I learned to dance to.
That wooden box carries around three generations worth of handwritten food memories. By keeping my own notebook, I keep the legacy of Lola Na alive — a woman who had very little contact with the world outside her own walls. My own recipe books simply spring from that mystery box of hers, one that she started sometime, perhaps, in 1962, somewhere in a kitchen in Manila, while leaves rustled outside a screened window on a warm afternoon.