For centuries, mothers in Asia have played pivotal roles in home kitchens across the continent. From China to India to Malaysia, women have been the arteries pumping life into the heart of traditional home-cooked meals, which they dutifully churned out day after day to feed their hungry families. In many instances, this responsibility was fulfilled largely out of obligation and in response to what had become a clearly defined gender role.
In Baba Nyonya communities for instance, recipes were often tightly guarded by family matriarchs who only passed them down the female line i.e. to their daughters or daughters-in-law.
This gender-based hierarchical structure led to the development of old-fashioned platitudes like ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ and ‘Cooking is how a mother expresses her love’ and more derogatory expressions like ‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen’ – all evidence that cooking was a predominantly female-led activity (whether a woman was interested in it or not).
The oft-repeated trope that fathers were the breadwinners and heads of the household reinforced this belief that a woman’s role was to cook and clean and look after her children.
But as with many things in life, the passage of time has changed this previously set-in-stone pattern somewhat. It began in the mid 20th century with an increasing number of women getting access to higher education, which in turn led to an influx of women joining the workforce. This has carved out different paths for many mothers who now straddle the responsibilities of child-rearing and housework with the travails of working life.
For contrast, in 1970, female labour force participation in Malaysia was 30%. In 2020, it was nearly 56%. The increase in the number of full-time working mothers over the years (and mothers who work part-time, freelance or run their own home businesses) has had a trickle-down effect in terms of the structure and means in which feeding a family has changed.
In 2021, many busy mothers have discovered that in order to provide nutritious meals for their families, a little help, some innovation and adaptation (and a few cheat days) go a long way towards satiating their children.
Feeding the family
When business development manager Ong Leah Lee married her husband Kelvin Tan, the couple mostly ate out in restaurants or went to Ong’s mother’s house for home-cooked meals. But once they became parents, Ong and Tan decided that things had to change drastically if they wanted their children to grow up eating healthy, nutritious meals.
Which is why Ong and her husband now take turns making the daily meals for their four-year-old daughter Helena Tan and nine-month-old son Ethan Tan. This way, they can split the cooking duties evenly so the onus isn’t always on one person and whoever isn’t cooking gets to spend quality time with the children.
“I work from home at the moment and so does my husband and we both normally finish around 5pm. We have a live-in nanny who looks after the children and handles their daily lunch, but for dinner, my husband and I decide who will take over the cooking for the day.
“We are quite fair about this division and split it according to the meal we feel like having for the day. He is good at cooking Western meals, so he is in charge of that and I am more influenced by the Chinese-style meals my mother taught me, so I often cook that. Kelvin also likes baking, so he makes a lot of desserts, kuih and even fresh bread for our breakfast daily.
Ong says her daughter also enjoys helping out, which is why she fully intends to teach both her children how to cook when they are older.
“My daughter is always saying, ‘Mum, can I help you do this?’ when I am cooking. So I plan to train her and her brother to cook from a young age, so this becomes a family activity, ” says Ong.
Legal counsel Lynn Ann Johnson has also discovered that it takes two to get everyday meals going, especially when parents have equally busy jobs.
Lynn and her husband Noel Anthony Raj used to eat out frequently at restaurants or order food in, as they both have demanding jobs.
Everything changed once they had their daughter Nicole Alena Raj, 8, though. These days, Lynn and her husband run a tight ship and have a schedule mapped out between the two of them, so that the family gets healthy, home-cooked meals every single day.
“How it works for us is if I’m making a big meal over the weekend, I freeze it and keep it so this lasts a couple of days over the week. But if that runs out, then my husband and I have this shift going. I wake up at 4am every morning and sort breakfast and lunch out for everyone and then take my daughter to school.
“My husband comes back earlier than me in the evenings, so he gets dinner going, whether that’s making a fresh batch of pasta or a rice-based meal. And that’s how we work throughout the weekdays. On the weekends, we visit either his parents or my parents, and both our mums always make food for us to pack and take back, so that also lasts through part of the week sometimes, ” says Lynn.
Lynn says without her husband pitching in, her family simply wouldn’t be able to enjoy home-cooked meals every day, as between the traffic jam and her long commute, she is simply too exhausted to cook every single meal every single day.
“Oh, it definitely helps because I cannot get back home in time to make dinner. I finish work at about 6.30pm and I am stuck in traffic for at least two hours en route back home, so cooking at that time is a pointless exercise.
“So we’ve done this for years, because we don’t have help. It’s just the three of us at home, so we’ve got a really good schedule where we take turns, because if not, we’d go mad, you know?” she says, laughing.
For insurance agent Shamini Krishnan, cooking is a task that she has become extremely adept at, having cooked for her dad for years before her children Suvharn Raj, five, and Pavhaarn Raj, two, were born.
As her husband Theeban Raj works long hours and often comes home late, Shamini and her domestic helper craft the family’s daily meals together.
Still, she finds that it takes discipline to juggle work and cooking, which is why she plans the family meals at least a day in advance and makes sure her fridge is always stocked up with essential ingredients.
“Every day from 9am to 1pm, I manage my insurance appointments. I also have a business as a reseller, so I try and do all my work within those hours. After that, if I have no appointments, I will cook lunch. If I cannot manage the cooking, I make sure that I prepare all the ingredients on alternate days, so my helper can do the cooking and I can continue working.
“I normally also cook dinner and take charge of all the weekend meals, but if I’m not around, my husband takes over the cooking. But I actually enjoy cooking so it’s basically about managing my time well, ” she says.
Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi, a sustainability expert who is the head of the UK Partnerships for Accelerated Climate Transitions (PACT) programme at the British High Commission KL, has discovered that as a single mum, leaning on her extended family has helped immeasurably in ensuring that her children Aidan Salahuddin Conrad, 9, and Aria Khadija Conrad, 7, are fed.
“I live 10 minutes away from my parents’ house so my kids spend a lot of time with them and have their daily lunches and dinners there. At the beginning of the pandemic, I did try making lunch for them but it was just too tiring to do that, clean up after and work as well – it was driving me up the wall, so I stopped, ” she says.
Over the weekends, Khairun does sometimes cook, but more importantly, she has taught her kids how to cook so that they are self-sufficient and can whip up a meal if the need arises.
“I taught my kids to cook a few years ago and they come grocery shopping with me too, so they always know what’s in the pantry. I have been doing this with them since they could read.
“So like a couple of weeks ago, I got really sick and couldn’t cook, so my son made some pasta for the family meal, ” says Khairun, with pride.
All the mums I spoke to grew up eating mostly traditional Asian food – whether that was rice and curry, Chinese-style steamed fish and soups or Malay lauk.
But since having children of their own, many have deviated somewhat from traditional recipes, given their workloads and the time constraints that they face in this busy modern world.
“Oh I think people are definitely deviating from traditional recipes. Like I have my mum’s recipe for chicken curry and it’s all from scratch. She doesn’t use store-bought meat curry powder – she actually grinds everything on her own. If I were to follow the recipe to a tee, it would take forever! And it defeats the purpose to buy a pre-mix pack and make chicken curry, because it’s just not the same, ” explains Lynn.
Which is why Lynn and her husband make a lot of quick, easy, healthy meals instead, like pastas, salads and wraps, which can be made fresh and fast. She also uses her oven and air-fryer a lot and avoids oily, fried food or fast food.
“There are some days though when we are too tired or too lazy and we actually just have a sandwich and we are okay with that sandwich, because it’s a proper, full-on egg or tuna or roasted chicken sandwich and it only takes about 15 minutes to make, ” says Lynn.
Ong and her husband meanwhile either make Chinese food or Western meals, depending on who is doing the cooking for the day.
“Everything we cook is fresh and spontaneous, sometimes we have traditional Chinese food like stir-fried vegetables and steamed fish. And sometimes we make quick Western food like pasta. My daughter likes soup noodles, so I make that for her every day as it’s quite easy – I just need to make the soup and throw in vegetables, meat and noodles.
“We want the kids to have a balanced diet, so all our meals have a lot of vegetables and protein, like fish. We eat a lot of fish, ” she says, laughing.
Ong also adds that although she uses her mother’s traditional Chinese agak-agak style recipes, she has modernised it somewhat with the use of implements like pressure cookers.
“I actually think cooking all these traditional dishes is much easier now, we can modernise the recipe and use tools like blenders and pressure cookers. Also there are better ingredient choices, so overall even though we have less time, we can do more efficient cooking, ” she says.
For Khairun, her priority is simply ensuring that her kids are fed, although she does try and get them to eat healthy meals. While she often might make salads and roast a fish or chicken for her children, there are also days when she utilises cooking sauces to expedite the process of making traditional Asian meals.
“I have a stack of premix cooking sauces and I just add some meat or vegetables to that, and typically these meals will be the same as what my mum used to make when I was growing up – rice, one or two meat dishes and a vegetable dish, ” she says.
Shamini on the other hand, works hard to ensure her sons enjoy their meals, which is why she strives to make a varied range of Asian dishes to suit her kids’ preferences and tastes.
“I think when we were young, we just ate whatever our mothers cooked – I mean, I ate rice and Indian dishes every day as a kid. But children now can be very picky. My five-year-old will ask me, “Amma, what have you cooked today?’ and go and see what is on the table. If he likes it, he will eat it, if he doesn’t, it is very hard to get him to eat it.
“So I look up a lot of different recipes on YouTube and vary the meals accordingly. Like my youngest likes vegetables so I might make stir-fried vegetables with prawns for him while my eldest likes more robust dishes like ayam kicap, so I will make that for him.
“I try and mix and match and make colourful meals because I want my kids to be happy and enjoy their meals, even though it takes more time and effort to do this. But when my five-year-old son comes up to me and says, ‘Amma, you are the best cook’, that just melts my heart, ” she says.