O.P.E.N. Kitchens: A Recipe for Connections & Communal Cooking

Noorlinah Mohamed

June 27, 2017

Director of The O.P.E.N. and O.P.E.N. Kitchens creator Noorlinah Mohamed shares about her inspiration behind this project. Catch the 27 home cooks in action from 8 July to 30 July for an enchanting experience not to be missed!

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Image courtesy of Jeannie Ho

I grew up with great cooks – my grandmother, mother and aunts. Mother was the designated cook in the family, while her sisters went off to work. She took to providing delicious food seriously. She considered it her responsibility. Her job.

Six years ago, she was diagnosed with dementia. We devised ways to hold on to every bit of her memory of family, friends, her surroundings and activities that she liked to do. But when everything else seemed hopeless, one trigger always worked to jolt a hidden nugget of information in her slowly crumbling memory palace. Food. Sometimes the sight of seldom found dishes or fruit, the smell of herbs or the taste of a less-known kueh(cake) would energise her and bring about a child-like lilt to her voice. At once, that mother who always had every recipe committed to memory suddenly became present. She told stories of a life that none of us knew. Once, while eating buah jambu air (rose apple), she recalled her experience in school where she attended only for a few weeks. With scorn, she described the indolent teachers who took longer than usual lunch breaks outside the classroom, while the students were made to repeatedly chant “B-O-bo, L-A-la, Bo-la” (Malay for ‘ball’). One indignant friend stopped her chant and ate the fruit she had brought for lunch. “But she didn’t share it with the rest of us,” my mother recalled. The memories she recounted felt recent. Told with great conviction and with specificity.

Food – the whole ritual that surrounds its preparation, eating and tasting – can be an extraordinarily powerful mnemonic device. The sight, smell, touch and taste of specific foods, and even the sound of mastication, can trigger vivid memories. One of the reasons is evolution. Food is evolutionarily designed to evoke memories as a form of survival. The need to eat results in ways in which the hippocampus, the part of our brain important for long-term and declarative memories, store information related to food. The hippocampus is also connected to other parts of the brain important for emotion and smell. That is why some food may trigger both bad and good memories. Like the convivial joy of eating durians for some, and disgust and avoidance for others. Finally, for reasons of survival, the hippocampus has direct links to the digestive system. Hormones controlling digestion, appetite and eating patterns have receptors in the hippocampus. That explains why the sight of food may trigger hunger pangs or, vice versa, the pangs remind us to feed.

But as society evolves, the need for survival is no longer the only reason why we eat. Eating together for leisure becomes an important ritual. In fact, eating together becomes not just a leisurely affair but a socially expected ritual to display hospitality and good manners. Now more than ever, with all our busy workdays, we combine eating for survival and eating for leisure together. It makes perfect sense: All of us have to eat, best to do it with people we like and make it a convivial affair. As we eat, we catch up on one another’s lives. Our hippocampus continues to store memories that one day will be recalled by a food trigger. What’s missing, however, is time spent in the kitchen. In much of these social eating, someone else is doing the cooking.

My early memories of food, however, involved food preparation with my grandmother, mother and aunts over weekends, with ‘neighbours’ I hardly knew. They gathered at our large kampung kitchen (note: I was very tiny and everything seemed huge to me) and each worked on some part of the food preparation. My induction to the inner circle of these kitchen queens was plucking the ends of bean sprouts. At funerals, at weddings, at new births, at housewarming parties, at anniversaries – my grandmother would call on relatives, friends, neighbours and even helpful strangers to the gotong royong (cooperative communal work) cook-out.

That memory etched in my childhood back in the ’70s is not uncommon for many of the 27 home cooks in O.P.E.N. Kitchens. They too grew up with memories of communal food preparation. Their memories of home-cooked meals began with observing their elders cook; listening to adult gossip that made little sense; sagely advice and life hacks that were passed down as traditions of chopping, cutting and stirring.

In their own way, each of these home cooks is attempting to share their own connection to communal cooking: a story of a special elder whose infectious passion for cooking they unwittingly inherited. I was fascinated by the home cooks’ visceral responses to the dish selection. Each dish is mnemonic to a specific time, space, person and moment. Listening to each one tell me their personal encounters is like listening to a friend telling me something familiar yet new as well. It was then that I decided each home cook would design their own experience of communal preparation and eating encounters. Some dishes are easier to cook, as recipes are made available. For others, you are guided by the experienced home cooks with their magician-like fingers.

“A thumb of galangal...” I laugh at this phrase as I’m writing it, remembering a phone call I made to my mother when I was studying in New York. I wanted an exact recipe for mee siam. But instead, she gave me a litany of dos and don’ts that came in no specific order. “My thumb is not as large as yours! The recipe is not right!” But guess what, it didn’t matter because the memory of how I wished my mee siam to be, which was supposed to be how my mother cooked it, resides in my hippocampus. A treasure trove of my mother’s cooking is in me. All I need now is to get back to the kitchen, do that cook-out and start a new tradition of gotong royong cooking. Care to join me?

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  • 2017