My paternal grandmother, whom I called “Oma”
As my cookbook launched this past October 1st, I came to the sudden realization that I knew more about the grandmothers I interviewed than my own. And in a reversal of scenarios, one friend whose mom I featured in the book told me, “You know more about my mom than I do!”
It wasn’t deliberate, honest. My maternal grandma “Popo” died before I knew her and my paternal grandma “Oma” live an hour plane ride away in Jakarta. And unfortunately, my parents hardly ever told us stories about our grandparents.
I thought this was a travesty along the same lines of eating Indonesian fried chicken without sambel (chili paste)–a huge faux pas in my book , at least! I decided to set things straight.
A few weeks ago, my birthday came and went and so did my late grandmother’s whose special day was the day after mine. My parents called me to wish me a happy birthday and I spent the next hour on the phone with my dad asking him to tell me about his mother, my Oma (Dutch for grandma).
Embarrassingly, my first question was, “What was her name?” I’d always called her Oma. The answer: Sicilianti Monica Sie.
Born in 1913, Oma was the youngest of three girls and a boy. Unfortunately, her brother passed away when he was very young. She was born in Cirebon on the northwest coast of the island of Java and grew up in Jakarta where she trained as a teacher. However, she never taught in a school. Not to say I can blame her, she did have a total of nine children!
In 1937, Oma married my Opa (grandfather), Tan Tjo Tjay. Opa worked for the postal service when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony and they moved several times and lived in many towns including Cirebon, Jakarta, Magelang and Bandung. My oldest aunt, tante Tres, my dad, Rudy, and my uncle, oom Theo, came in quick succession.
The family was living in Jakarta when the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942 during WWII. And so began a time of extreme hardship.
From 1943 to 1945, Opa was interned on suspicion of spying because he was a Dutch civil servant. To survive, Oma sold cakes and cookies at the market and fed her children whatever she could pull together. (Dad used to tell us he ate cockroaches and rats to survive but to this day, I still don’t know whether to believe him.)
Most heart-wrenching of all is the story Dad told me of the time Oma lugged him, 3, and tante Tres, 4, to visit Opa in jail. The three of them had to take the train from Jakarta to Bandung and each and every car was so chockfull of people it was impossible to enter through the doors.
In desperation, Oma shoved her two children into the train through the window. Just as she did that, the train started chugging away along the tracks. I can’t imagine what was going through her heart and her head right at that moment. A cocktail of love, panic and adrenalin must have been coursing through her veins as she started running alongside the train and thankfully managed to squeeze herself into the entryway of a train car. After frantically searching, she finally reunited with her children.
That wasn’t the end of the episode. After the harrowing train experience, Dad related how Oma had to bribe just about every official in the prison hierarchy to gain access to Opa.
This picture was taken right after my younger sister, Mo was born in 1979. Oma is sitting at the right end of the couch next to me. Mom is cradling Mo in her arms. The young lady on my mom’s left is her sister tante Wawa and the crazy boy with the blurry face is my brother, Mars.
When the Japanese occupation ended, the family eventually settled in Bandung, a city three hours (depending on traffic) southeast of Jakarta, where life more or less went back to normal.
Oma was a stay-at-home mom and had helped from her own mother.
With a brood of nine, the family always ate at home. Dad accompanied Oma to the market and carried her shopping, while in the kitchen his brother Theo would help with the cooking, which is why “Oom Theo got fatter than the rest of us,” I quote Dad.
Meals comprised a lot of soups, one of the easiest dishes to cook for such a big clan: oxtail soup, sayur asem (sour vegetable soup), and sayur asin (salted vegetable soup).
Fish like mackerel was seasoned with tamarind and deep fried, and for a special treat, gurame (a white flat fish similar to barramundi) was deep fried with taucheo (yellow bean paste). Every so often, Oma would buy 10 or so crabs and cook them with ginger and oyster sauce. Plus, she’d stir fry vegetables like chayote, long beans or kangkung (water spinach).
There was always a meat or fish dish, one veggie dish and the requisite bottle of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) which Dad is still addicted to till this day.
With nine siblings around the table, if you weren’t quick you didn’t get the choice pieces of meat.
Opa was a pork lover so there was often pig offal on the dining table as well which none of the children liked—the head, nose and cheeks, trotters, etc. No one ever fought over those dishes!
For the last four years of her life, Oma was bedridden. She had a hereditary condition that caused her vertebrae to be crooked—she was literally bent double the last time I saw her standing. She also went blind probably from undiagnosed diabetes. I think it’s sad that she chose to stay in Indonesia despite her two sons being in Singapore where there was better health care.
Oma died in 1985.
That was as much as I got out of Dad that one morning but I hope to learn more about this special woman who brought him up. In fact, I’d like to try and recreate some of the simple dishes Oma used to make.
That’s the least I can do in her memory.