top of page
  • Writer's pictureTina Brand

Working my way through mum's cookbook

When I was about to leave home to finish high school overseas, mum dusted off a vinyl covered diary to write down some of her recipes for me. Any recorded recipe from my mother was a real feat as she was the sort to throw ingredients together pretty randomly and produce something sublime. The book contains hand written recipes for things like Malay rendang and nasi lemak, but also American apple pie and Australian orange drizzle cake. There's Burmese balachuang, South Indian vindaloo and dosa, and North Indian Mughlai raan.

Yes, of course she had her stack of recipe books from which she cooked, following the recipes precisely, but her own dishes were another whole matter. Mum was particularly fond of her complete set of South Australian Country Women's Association cook books which was a gift from her pen pal and then close friend from country SA, the lovely, late Phylis Klem.

Recipes from India though, were so much like stories passed down by word of mouth, so they changed and morphed when each household lay claim to them.

Looking back, I feel mum 'westernize' her Indian recipes if she altered them at all.

Mary Edna D'Souza and Eric Dunstan Gomes married in Trivandrum, South India at a young age, straight out of college. Edna not knowing how to cook anything at all, eyed her culinary journey ahead somewhat reluctantly at first.

The newly wedded couple moved overseas and settled in a small town in Borneo, where expatriates from all over the world were making a new life: the Brits were leaving their colonies and hiring people for the public service, schools, hospitals and other areas of the burgeoning town's infrastructure.

My mother's sheltered life turned into an amazing adventure. Her new friends were from all parts of the world, including indigenous women, native to her new home. She began teaching at the local convent school, signed up to volunteer at two charitable organizations, and embarked on a social life she never would have dreamed of.

This picture below is of mum (second from left) with a group of her women friends who include a Dayak, a Malay, and two Chinese women. The ladies had come over to learn to cook a South Indian meal, and they all ended up in mum's closet trying on her sarees.

The food at our dinner table reflected this new cultural shift for my parents. For us three daughters, it was normal to have dumplings from the corner stalls for a late weekend breakfast, laksa at the school canteen for lunch, finished off with an enamel bowl of shaved ice doused in sweet rose syrup (ice kacang). Dinner could then be something like meatloaf and mashed potatoes or fish and chips, or a classic nasi lemak. Apart from being addicted to tender morsels of steamed Malay coconut cakes from the local markets, our family also loved the traditional Aussie slices, cakes and fudges which mum would produce for birthday parties and school fetes.

Mum had been born into a household eating traditional South Indian Christian food

(think pork vindaloo and uppams), but also had access to western food which her army officer father would bring from the commissary, like tinned peaches, Kraft cheese, and ham. My father who had been brought up in Burma in a household that was made formal by a father who was a police officer during the British Raj, had eaten differently. Dad's palate was formed by the milder Burmese curries and balachaung, also mixed in with some of the bland British fare of that era.

You could say the culinary experiences of the young Gomeses exploded upon arrival in Borneo.

At the jungle produce markets on a Sunday, my mother and I would wend our way through the stalls, stopping here and there, but reserving our full attending for Dora. This quiet and regal Dayak woman had elongated ears weighted by brass disks, and a smile smudged blood red from chewing betel. From Dora we would purchase jungle fern tendrils, hard to find fruit like red bananas and rose guava, and my absolute favourite which she made fresh weekly: sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and steamed in long segments of bamboo. These experiences were quite normal for me, having been born here, but for my mother and father, it would have been quite amazing.

Eventually, Dora gave up attending the jungle produce markets in the baking heat of a parking lot near the big mosque in town, and came directly to our house. She became a familiar fixture on our back verandah every week, unloading her large, long woven basket which she would have carried on her back, the strap of which rested on her forehead as she walked.

Dora and I became particularly close, and on a few occasions my parents even gave permission for me to to spend a weekend with her back to the longhouse community where she lived some miles out of town, . At the longhouse, the food would be bland boiled pork with rice doused in soy sauce, and fiery chilli pastes on the side. Being away on such an adventurous sleepover, the food was of little concern to me. We would walk in the rice fields with her family, wash in the rivers, and sleep in the communal space in the longhouse with other families on woven mats under a mosquito net. Above us in the bamboo rafters, strings of shrivelled human skulls would glare down upon us. This had been the land of the headhunters after all.

Sometimes, fuelled by enough tuak, the local rice wine, the longhouse men would perform the hornbill dance, crouching and twisting, slow and sinuous, to the beat of brass gongs.

These lives made a big impression on me. When I was old enough, I asked to enroll at the local community centre to learn the traditional Dayak dances. No ballet for me like my older siblings.

As always, food memories take me down all kinds of rabbit holes. I started with that hand written recipe book and ended here with my experiences with Dora from the longhouse.

I beg your pardon!

I do resolve however, to try and post one of mum's recipe's from this recipe book from time to time. Like her Christmas cake with twenty- four eggs and half a bottle of VSOP brandy.... .........


bottom of page