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Traditional Indian dishes cooked from the heart by septuagenarian Betty Vincent

Traditional Indian dishes cooked from the heart by septuagenarian Betty Vincent

Betty Vincent bustles about her kitchen with boundless energy and a sense of purpose, stirring the ghee rice she has cooked and opening well-stocked cupboards to pick out her favourite crockery – some of her tableware dates back to 1958, the year she got married.

At one point, she heads out to the little herb garden at the back of her house and carefully cuts off a sprig of mint leaves to adorn a dish she has made.

This vigour is all the more impressive given that Betty is nearly 78 years old.

But to family and friends who know the warm-hearted, generous Betty, this is just a regular day for the woman who has spent her life taking care of and feeding the people she loves.

Although Betty is now widely acknowledged to be a fabulous home cook, she actually had no working knowledge of the kitchen until she got married at 18, fresh out of school. It was the norm for women of her generation.

“My mother was a good cook, but we always had maids in the house. And I got married straight out of school, so she didn’t really teach me how to cook,” says Betty.

After her marriage, Betty and her husband M.J. Vincent moved into his family home, where nearly 20 people shared the same living space.

Betty Vincent, home cook, Everyone Can Cook, Indian food

Although she is nearly 78, Betty still cooks all the traditional Indian dishes she learnt dating back to the 1950s, as her family loves her food.

“There were 19 of us in my mother-in-law’s house but we had fun. My mother-in-law did the marketing and my sisters-in-law did the cooking. I just watched and observed whatever they were cooking,” she says.

In 1964, Betty and her family moved into their own home, and all her observational skills were put to good use when she started cooking for own little family, gradually developing a carefully curated repertoire of recipes.

These days, Betty is a dab hand in the kitchen and continues to cook the traditional Indian recipes she picked up from years of constant learning.

One of her signature dishes is her ghee rice, which is buoyed by spices like cloves and cinnammon, and rich with coconut milk and ghee. It is a dish she picked up from her mother-in-law, who often made it on Sundays when Betty and her family went to visit her.

“My son Jerry likes this rice. When he was little, on days when we went to visit my mother-in-law and she didn’t cook it, he would say, ‘Aiyoh mummy, Aima (grandma) didn’t make the rice!’” she recalls, chuckling.

Although the rice has ghee in it, it isn’t too oily as Betty is careful not to put too much. “If you want, you can add more oil, but I don’t like it too oily – it’s too rich and people are all very health-conscious now,” she says.

Betty’s most well known for her fish pickle, a recipe she inherited from her mother that has become the stuff of family legend.

The sumptuous, intoxicatingly good pickle is filled with chunks of fish and has delicate vinegary undertones suffusing each mouthful.

Betty Vincent, M.J. Vincent, home cook

Betty and her husband Vincent have been married for 60 years and he says he really likes her food.

It is often requested by her many relatives. So, Betty often makes it and packs it in bottles for her children (two of whom live overseas), nephews and nieces to take home.

The recipients of Betty’s fish pickle are extremely possessive of it and a refusal to share with others is a recurring theme.

Even holy men have been known to get greedy whilst under the spell of her pickle!

“My godson is a priest and I made him some fish pickle when he went to Rome. When he was there, the other Malaysian priests wanted to try some of his pickle and he said ‘No, this is mine!’”she says, laughing mischievously.

Another family favourite is Betty’s Kerala-style dried prawn sambal, which she learnt to make from a friend whose mother originated from the south Indian state.

The sambal is a dry, robustly-flavoured affair punctuated by chewy bursts of dried prawns and a spicy undercurrent that proves immensely satisfying.

“This one is nice with bread, you butter your bread and add this, and it’s good!” says Betty.

Although most of her recipe repository is made up of meals that she watched her elders preparing, Betty’s tomato chutney is something she came up with herself. “I just tried it and it turned out nice,” she says, ever humble.

The chutney is a hedonistic delight – creamy, with spice-laden nuances and a tanginess from the tomatoes.

Although Betty could easily slow down now, she remains enthusiastic about cooking and still cooks for her husband every day. When asked if he likes her food, she quips, “He never says no to my food,” and smiles at her husband.

In response, 87-year-old Vincent (they’ve been married for 60 years now) beams back at his wife and says, “Yeah, yeah, I like her food.”

GHEE RICE

Serves 6

2 heaped tbsp ghee
100g cashewnut
300g onion, sliced
5 cloves
5 cardamom pods
2 cinnammon sticks
400g Basmati rice, cleaned
4 bay leaves
2 pandan leaves
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
salt to taste
200ml coconut milk
water, to cook rice

To make

In a pan, add ghee and fry cashewnuts until slightly browned. Remove cashewnuts from ghee.

In the same pan, use remaining ghee to fry onions. Add cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and saute for awhile. Remove from the heat.

Put rice in rice cooker, add fried ingredients, bay leaves, pandan leaves, turmeric, salt and cashew nuts. Add coconut milk and some water to cook. The liquid level should be slightly above the rice. Leave to cook in rice cooker and once done, stir and serve hot.

fish pickle

FISH PICKLE

Serves 6

For blending into a paste
300g ginger
300g garlic

For mixing together
1 heaped tbsp tamarind
2 cups vinegar

For marinating
4 pcs tenggiri fillets
1 tsp chilli powder
salt to taste

For cooking
1 1/2 cups oil
2 tsbp mustard seeds, pounded slightly
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp chilli powder
salt to taste
a large handful curry leaves

To make

Blend garlic and ginger into a paste and set aside.

In a bowl, mix the tamarind and vinegar until absorbed. Strain mixture, reserving remaining tamarind-vinegar juice.

Marinate fish with chilli powder and salt.

In a wok, add oil and fry fish till tender but not crispy. Remove from the heat and cut fish into bite-sized pieces.

In the same wok, use the remaining oil to fry ginger and garlic until cooked well (about 15 minutes). Add mustard seeds, sugar, chilli powder, tamarind-vinegar juice, salt and curry leaves. Fry for 10 to 15 minutes until aromatic. Add fish and coat evenly in mixture. Serve hot or leave to cool and eat later.

dried prawn sambal

DRIED PRAWN SAMBAL

Serves 6

200g dried prawn
1 cup oil
400g onion, chopped finely
100g garlic, chopped finely
5 tbsp chilli powder
4 to 5 tbsp sugar
salt to taste

To make

Soak the dried prawns in water. Drain and grind in a dry blender.

In a pan on medium heat, add oil and fry the onions, garlic, chilli powder, sugar and salt for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add dried prawns and on low heat, fry mixture for about 15 to 20 minutes until it is completely dry. Serve on bread or with rice.

tomato chutney

TOMATO CHUTNEY

Serves 6

For dry toasting and pounding
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper

For cooking
oil, for cooking
3 large onions, chopped finely
1 red chilli, cut finely
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
salt to taste
3 to 4 tbsp Greek yoghurt

To make

In a pan, dry toast cumin and pepper. Remove from the heat and pound to a powder in a pestle and mortar.

In a large pan, add oil and fry onions and chilli till onions are tender. Add tomatoes, chilli powder, turmeric, cumin, pepper and salt. Fry mixture for awhile.

When tomatoes are soft and mushy, remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Once cooled, stir in yoghurt and serve as is, or refrigerate until ready to eat.

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