Recording Family Recipes

My mum recently showed me how to make ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with black nuts), one of my favorite childhood dishes–it was much easier than I expected especially since the nuts are available already peeled and processed here in the U.S.

Since the launch of the paperback version of “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook,” I’ve been doing book events and signings around town.

Rather than just talking about the book and the process of putting it together, I’d like to encourage everyone to emulate it and start recording their own family recipes for posterity. It’s no secret that I’m all for that!

To get you started, I came up with a list of tips. (Thanks to Emily Ho for some great ideas in her article on

  1. Don’t procrastinate! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to have told me that their grandmother used to make this absolutely fabulous dish for them but they didn’t learn how to make it, their mom didn’t learn how to make it, and now that their grandma’s gone so’s the recipe. So don’t wait, do it today!
  2. Get organized. Before you start cooking, lay out all the ingredients on the kitchen table or counter and run through them together. Note them all down, together with the amounts (weight, cups, bundles). If possible, go shopping with grandma so you know what to look for and where it’s available. You’ll also pick up tips on selecting vegetables and meat. (Just don’t poke those peaches too hard!).
  3. Be prepared. When I cooked with a grandma, I brought my arsenal with me–measuring cups, measuring spoons, tape measure, timer, camera, notebook, and pen. I was always ready to pounce and intercept with cups and teaspoons before the cook could pour salt or soy sauce into the pot. You don’t have to be as anal, especially if you’re good at estimating. Just ask grandma to slow down so you can absorb what’s going on, and also so she can show you how many peppercorns are in her hand before she throws them in the pot. Jot down rough estimates like “sugar–about 1 tablespoon,” or “soy sauce–1 Chinese rice bowl.” You can translate everything into standard measurements later. In the end, the finite amounts don’t really matter because no matter how hard you try, no two cooks make the same dish exactly alike. Plus, you and your family will have your own preferences for how salty or sweet you like a dish.
  4. Video or audio record the cooking session. You won’t be distracted by trying to write everything down, and you can pay attention and enjoy the experience with grandma. Videos can also be useful for documenting steps or techniques, and they also serve as wonderful mementoes when loved ones are gone. And if you can get grandma to narrate the steps as she cooks, you can listen to the audio recording when recreating the dish on your own.
  5. Tag team. Have someone else record the video (this is a great sibling project), and ask them to zoom in when grandma is demonstrating a technique like caramelizing sugar or chopping lemongrass. This way, you can also be in the video cooking with your grandma. Or, your partner can take photos and you can take notes. It always helps to have two sets of eyes and ears!
  6. Taste as you go. Seasoned home cooks rely on their senses rather than standard measurements, having honed their taste buds, eyes, ears, and fingers to know what a dish is supposed to be like at different stages. When I cook(ed) with my mum, she would taste the dish at several different stages of cooking, and I’d taste right along with her. In addition to taste, try and learn other sensory cues. Don’t be afraid to ask how things are supposed to look, sound, smell, and feel at different stages of the recipe. Pay close attention and watch to see if grandma adjusted heat levels and cooking times based on these factors.
  7. Find out the story. The story behind a family recipe is just as important as the ingredients and technique. Ask grandma when she learned how to make the dish, and who taught her. Is it a special dish served during a holiday or a particular season of the year? What other dishes or beverages would she serve it with? Depending on the situation and the complexity of the dish, you can always sit down and do a separate interview instead of talking while cooking.
  8. Ask for feedback. Afterwards, make the dish on your own and ask for feedback. Does the texture feel right? Did you add so much cardamom that it overpowers the rest of the flavors in the dish? What suggestions does grandma have to improve it?
  9. Compile a family cookbook once you have enough recipes. It can be as simple as photocopied sheets in a binder, or you could go all out and produce a cookbook on a photo site like Shutterfly and

I can’t emphasize #1 enough so I hope you’ll start recording family recipes now. To encourage you further, I have 2 promo codes to give away for a photo book (worth $40.95) so that you can create your very own family cookbook! All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what’s your favorite family recipe and why. **This contest ends October 1.

Or, you could come to one of my events in the Seattle area. I’ll be giving them out there as well.


* I requested promo codes for free photobooks to distribute at my events, as well as family cookbooks from Shutterfly and to share with my audience as examples of what they can create. I am not compensated in any way for promoting their Web sites.


17 thoughts on “Recording Family Recipes

  1. Thank you all for your responses! The winners are Linda Goh and Barbara. Congratulations, you’ll be hearing from me soon. Cheers, Pat

  2. I have twin girls who have watched our family go from a wildly eccentric diet of diverse foods to a more selective one of gluten free, dairy free, soy free, corn free one.
    I’d love to be able to create cookbooks for them to preserve their favorite recipes

  3. I’ve scanned my grandmothers hand written cooknook that is falling apart. I need to make it into a book that we can actually use and this would be perfect! My favorite family recipe is our sweet potato recipe! mmmmmm!!!

    1. That’s a great idea, Louise. Do not take any chances of losing those precious pages. A friend of mine had just scanned his grandma’s photo albums before her house was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. Everyone was so thankful!

  4. Hi Pat, this is a very helpful post! I especially like the idea of having a partner do videorecording so that you don’t get too caught up in recording details while simultaneously trying to cook. My favorite family recipe is my mom’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup (which I’ve shared on my blog)– it’s Taiwan’s national dish and of course I think my mom’s is the best! 🙂

    1. I totally agree, Linda. I hope you attempt to do that with your mom or mom-in-law (sounds like she’s got some fabulous recipes!). And I’ve been meaning to try that beef noodle soup recipe on your blog. Gotta stop procrastinating!

  5. It strikes me that these are great tips not just for grannies, but for parents, friends, aunts, uncles — anyone whose food we love and hope to recreate. I’m keeping this post on file!

  6. Cherrry Cream Pie is my family favorite. We used to have it for all of our family special celebrations. I really need to ask Mom for a copy of the recipe. It always makes me smile when I think about the fun memories where this pie was served.

  7. I name my favourite family recipe ” Grandpa’s pork chop” because it’s a dish cooked by my dad during my childhood days and it’s the only connection my chidren have with their grandpa that they’ve never met.

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