Shermay and her grandmother, Mdm Chua Jim Neo (Mrs Lee Chin Koon), who authored The Mrs Lee's Cookbook in 1974, have played a significant role in Shermay's culinary journey. Her grandmother's guidance sparked her passion for cooking from a young age. In our artwork, we aimed to capture the essence of a real moment, but accurately depicting the facial expressions while pounding ingredients in the Batu Lesung proved challenging. Nevertheless, Shermay cherishes the Batu Lesung seen in the picture (Left), which she inherited from her grandmother. To this day, she still possesses and treasures the Batu Lesung.
In the late 1970s, the photograph captures Mrs Lee, accompanied by her family, including her grandchild Shermay, along with other grandchildren, enjoying a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Singapore.
Peranakans are a distinct cultural group originating from the intermarriage between mainly Chinese, Indian and Arab immigrants and local Malay populations in the Southeast Asian region, particularly in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. For Peranakans, food holds a special place in their lives, serving as a way to express love, celebrate, and preserve their identity.
One exceptional woman who understood the importance of food in Peranakan culture was Mdm Chua Jim Neo, also known as Mrs. Lee Chin Koon.
Mrs Lee was a talented, capable, progressive and intelligent woman who lived from 1908 to 1980, she passed at age 72. She knew the intricate nature of Peranakan cuisine and emphasised the mastery required to perfect these complex dishes. She aptly captured this in her foreword for the “Mrs Lee’s Cookbook”, published in 1974.
She vividly describes it in her own words, “Nonya food is so complicated that it takes years to learn and master. We had to learn to pound our rempah to just the right texture, we had to learn to fry garlic until it was golden brown, light and crispy, we had to learn to combine and measure our spices so that they would harmonise, and we had to learn to fry our dishes so that the gravies would be clear and bright, not dull, in colour. All of these things require training, experience, and skill. In those days, we didn't use recipes and measurements such as tablespoons, and everything was done by agak (estimation). Everything had to be learned by watching and practising.
To us, our Nonya food is very special and we prefer to eat it to any other type of food. Nonya recipes are usually hot and spicy and call for the use of a lot of pungent roots (langkwas, tumeric and ginger), aromatic leaves (daun pandan, daun limau purut and daun kesum) and other ingredients such as candlenuts, shallots, shrimp paste and, of course, chillies. Sometimes lemon, lime tamarind, blimbing (a small sour fruit) and green mangoes are used to give certain recipes a sharp, sour flavour which whets the appetite. Ingredients found in Malay, Indonesian and Chinese kitchen can be found in our kitchens, however not all of our ingredients can be found in other typical Chinese kitchens.”
The picture depicts Mrs Lee cooking in her kitchen, where she is seen making Chendol from scratch using a Chendol maker.
Mrs Lee held cooking classes in her kitchen, teaching participants how to cook Peranakan and Singaporean cuisine. In this picture, she is seen instructing her students to make Nasi Kuning (Yellow Rice).
With her extensive knowledge and expertise, Mrs Lee cooked for her family and embarked on a mission to share her culinary wisdom with others. She taught Peranakan cooking to housewives, transforming her passion into a source of income.
With great foresight, Mrs Lee recognised the need to preserve Peranakan culinary traditions for future generations. Despite her limited formal education, she authored the pioneering cookbook "Mrs. Lee's Cookbook”. She captured not only recipes, but also the stories, customs, and traditions that make Peranakan culture so vibrant in her cookbook. Her cookbook became a beloved heirloom, passed down through generations, serving as a guide to preserving their cultural identity and keeping their traditions alive.
Mrs Lee's dedication to her craft and family was evident. She was a devoted mother and grandmother, she was a cornerstone and cherished her family. When she passed away in 1980, each grandchild commented and joked they thought they were her favourite because she made each child feel special, and she was very present in their lives.
Shermay vividly remembers her grandmother as a dynamic and influential figure in her life. Many family members have remarked of the similarities between Shermay and her grandmother, both in their physical resemblance and their shared love for cooking.This has shaped Shermay’s life’s work to honour her grandmother’s memory, her legacy and Peranakan food and is at the heart of her cookbooks, food and brand to this day.
Through her grandmother’s influence, Shermay has embraced her heritage and the preservation of the Peranakan tradition. She updated and published "The New Mrs. Lee's Cookbook: Vol 1" in 2003, followed by "The New Mrs. Lee's Cookbook: Vol 2" in 2004. Her culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu has helped Shermay rework the cookbooks, making them more comprehensive and listing detailed instructions for people to learn these treasured recipes.
Shermay's dedication to preserving her grandmother's culinary legacy inspired her to establish Shermay's Cooking School in 2003, where she taught and shared her grandmother's Peranakan recipes, ensuring their continued practice and appreciation. In 2015, she pivoted to starting Shermay's Singapore Fine Food, a food manufacturing company that specialises in producing Peranakan sauces, including her grandmother's cherished Cilicuka (chilli vinegar), sambal, snacks, and spices.
Shermay's lifelong devotion to Peranakan cuisine pays homage to the enduring legacy of her beloved grandmother, Mrs. Lee. Echoing her deep passion, she affirms, "This will remain my life's work," underscoring her unwavering commitment to preserving and perpetuating the rich culinary heritage.
As a young girl, Shermay actively participated in conducting bake sales, fueling her interest in food and entrepreneurship from an early age. This passion has remained with her to this day.