In the past, it was common to see the women of the household hunched over chopping boards or hovering over sizzling frying pans as they attended to their family’s meals every day of the week.
But times are a-changing and while many women still do the lion’s share of everyday cooking, increasingly, more and more men are also stepping up to help feed their families.
Drama teacher Lam Gooi Ket, 62, for example, has been cooking for his three children – Hariraam Tingyuan Lam, 31, Arunagiri Szeyuan Lam, 22, and Sangametra Yuiyuan Lam, 20, for decades. It was a practice that started when they were little and has continued to this day.
“My wife is a dance teacher, choreographer and performer so she is very busy. And my three children are all adults now but when they were young, my wife and I worked very hard to look after them – we did it in shifts.
“And I always felt anxious when my children were away from me and I was always worrying about what they would eat, so I somehow took it upon myself to cook.
“I would come back from work and start cooking for them, because I was very, very conscious that they shouldn’t go hungry. So my wife cooked occasionally, but I cooked and continue to cook for the family most of the time.
“Even now, my wife will say, ‘Darling, you are so tired, why do you want to cook? But I love it!” says Lam.
And Lam is not alone in this endeavour to feed his family. Many other fathers around Malaysia are proud home cooks who love nothing more than cooking up a storm for their wives and children.
How they learnt to cook
Learning how to cook can take many forms, but the most common method of learning in Malaysia is often through oral tradition. For many people, this often takes root while watching an elder, most often a mother or grandmother as they go about their daily cooking.
For consultant engineer Sivadas Chelladurai, 68, his Sri Lankan mother had a huge influence on his culinary pedigree and knowledge. As a child, Sivadas recalls constantly feeling hungry and bugging his mother to get lunch ready earlier, something she said would get done faster if he deigned to help her!
“From the time I was in primary school, I used to go into the kitchen and help my mother, purely to appease my own hunger. And sometimes she would mix a curry in a kuali and I would watch her and offer to take over.
“And that’s how I picked up many things informally by observing her, so I didn’t really have a recipe book or anything like that, because I had a live teacher in front of me!” he says.
Sivadas’ views are echoed by Lam who says his mother left a strong impact on his culinary sensibilities.
“When I was young, my mother had a little shop on the street where we lived and she sold wantan noodles and chap fan (mixed rice) to increase the income for the family. So when I was maybe 13 or 14, I had to fry eggs and fish to help her out because I was old enough to brave the hot oil!
“I also learnt how to make minced meat and yong tau foo and clean cockles – I learnt quite a lot actually,” he says.
For retired banker Leo Cheang Heng, 60, the simple kampung food that he grew up eating and watching his mother cook, really cemented his interest in cooking.
“I learnt to cook when I was about 10. We lived in a kampung in Melaka in those days and I used to watch my mum and often helped her to cut and clean fish and things like that. We were not a rich family, so the food she made was very simple and it was just to keep the hunger away,” he says.
French national Azedine Kacher, 42, who works in the oil and gas industry, says that unlike many others, it was actually his father who inspired his interest in cooking for his own family.
“Growing up in Paris, France, I actually learnt to cook from my dad when I was young. He was the one who did most of the cooking and he would take me to the farmers’ markets there and we used to cook whatever was in season,” he reminisces.
There are also fathers whose interest in cooking was spurred by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially when lockdowns were interminable and they had more time on their hands.
This is exactly what happened to Richard Ng, 58. Ng has been working in corporate management for 30 years and says that before the first movement control order (MCO), it was his wife who did all the cooking for him and his two adult daughters – Amelia Ng, 31, and Amber Ng, 26.
“During the MCO, there wasn’t much to do and my family likes to eat Korean and Japanese food. So I picked up a lot of skills from professional chefs on YouTube and bloggers and learnt from there. Since then, I have managed to cook up authentic Japanese and Korean food and my family really enjoys it,” he says.
Why they enjoy cooking for their families
For many busy dads, cooking is a way to show their love for their nearest and dearest and also a great bonding exercise, as it helps bolster familial ties.
Azedine for example makes it a point to cook simple meals like homemade pizzas, hamburgers or roast chicken for his three young kids – Iman Kacher, seven, and five-year-old twins Leo and Abel Kacher, every single day after he gets home from work.
“I work all day long and the days are busy between school and work so it is not easy to find time with my family, so the only time I have with my three kids is dinner time, so that is the reason I try to cook every day for them. It is good family time,” says Azedine.
Ng meanwhile says he truly enjoys this renewed time he has carved out with his family as a result of his newfound interest in cooking.
“I think more dads should cook for their families because it creates a lot of bonding in the family. In this way, fathers also spend more time at home.
“I would say my family is close-knit but cooking has made us closer – I get to see the joy and excitement on my daughters’ faces when I cook up a storm and I can also hear their honest comments about the food. And the best part is they do the washing up!” says Ng, laughing.
Leo on the other hand says it is the sense of freedom he gets from cooking as well as the reactions from his three adult kids – Adrian Leo, 32, Aaron Leo, 30, and Alexa Leo, that has motivated him to continue cooking for them when they come home to Melaka (all three of his children are based in Kuala Lumpur now).
“Cooking is therapeutic for me, because when I cook, nobody disturbs me or tells me what I should put in the food. This gives me so much freedom because in the working world, we are always taking instructions from others. But when I cook, I am my own boss.
“And the other thing that keeps me cooking is that my kids love what I cook, because I don’t only make traditional Chinese dishes like my mum. I make Spanish paella, Italian pasta, Nyonya dishes, nasi dagang – all kinds of food.
“And my daughter is a special child, she has Down’s Syndrome, so her reactions are always very genuine. So the satisfaction I get from cooking comes especially from her, because she is very good at showing her appreciation – that’s very special to me,” he says.
Sharing a love of food
For many dads, the joy of cooking is also in sharing their knowledge and skills with their children, something that many of their offspring seem to have picked up over the years – probably because of their dads’ influence.
Lam for instance, has an incredibly wide arsenal of recipes under his belt, from the traditional Chinese dishes his mother used to make (consequently, he even made all his wife’s confinement meals) to classic Indian dishes like sambar and curries that he learnt to make to satisfy the cravings of his wife, who is Indian.
When his children were younger, Lam often used to try and get them to learn how to cook, to no avail. Over time, he came to the realisation that they would learn when they wanted to and that is exactly what has happened.
“I told myself ‘Don’t worry, just continue cooking, one day they will ask to learn.’ And now my second son always helps with the cooking and my eldest son is also learning. My daughter still lives at home and she will cook with me if the two of us are at home together and if she is in a good mood.
“When my daughter cooks with me, it is such a bonding exercise – she is happy, so I am happy. So I have found that if you don’t demand that they cook, but show them by example, eventually they will come around,” says Lam.
Although Azedine’s children are very young, he has already entrusted them with simple tasks like peeling potatoes or helping to put the chicken to roast in the oven. His children also go with him to the wet market as he wants them to have a thorough understanding of where their food comes from, something he himself grew up with in France.
“Every human is connected to food, so that’s what we try to share with our kids – that they belong to a larger ecosystem and they have a connection with everyone in the world. That’s why it is important for everyone to be able to cook.
“So in future, I think it will be part of their routine to go to the market where they can see the food in front of them and start cooking for their siblings and so on. That will be part of the family lifestyle,” he says.
Ng meanwhile says his two grown daughters share his love of food, but don’t disturb him when he is cooking. Instead they have found a way to make their common interest work in harmony.
“I think they have their own set of skills, because normally when I cook something more elaborate, they will come in to say they will get the dessert done.
“So in that sense, there is synergy and bonding, because I will do the main course and they will take care of their own area and everything becomes part of dinner,” says Ng.
Sivadas meanwhile cooked for his two daughters – Swathi Sivadas, 31, and Aruna Sivadas, 28 – throughout their childhood as his wife is a music teacher and often teaches at night and on weekends, so he took over cooking the family’s daily vegetarian meals (his family is completely vegetarian). Eventually, he and his wife taught their daughters how to cook as well, and the girls started making meals for their parents in their teens.
Now both his children are married and have flown the roost. With more time on his hands, Sivadas has taken to spreading his love of cooking and sharing food with his neighbours. In fact, in his neighbourhood, he has become something of a father figure as he loves cooking up elaborate meals and delivering his homemade concoctions to his many neighbours.
“For me, cooking is relaxation and a joy – it has never been a chore to put a meal on the table. That’s why I like cooking for my neighbours – I have Chinese, Malay, Indian and Punjabi neighbours and they really like my vegetarian dishes like kathrikai sadam (brinjal rice) which they say is very tasty.
“So what I will do is sometimes I will cook a dish and then WhatsApp my neighbours and ask if I can send them some. I also have an immediate neighbour with three young kids so once in a while, I will say, ‘Why don’t I cook dinner for your family tomorrow?’
“There is also an elderly Punjabi couple that I cook for – they like upma (a savoury Indian semolina dish) and one day I made it for them and they had another elderly couple visiting them. When the other couple found out I like cooking for the neighbours, they said they must move in next door!” says Sivadas, laughing.