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My Grandmother Taught Me Everything, So I Made Her Pizza

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

She eyed the plate in front of her suspiciously, poking at the dough with her fork. “Just pick it up with your hands!” I instructed. “It’s pizza.”

“Pi-zza,” she repeated, sounding out long Zs in the word. She took a slice in her fingertips, blew on it a few times to cool it, and bit into the narrowest tip of the triangle. “Mmm!” She paused, savoring what she’d just tried. She went in for another bite. “It’s very good. It’s...something different.”

My grandma, or Ammama, as she’s known to family and loved ones, is the matriarch of a third-generation Singaporean family. The eldest child of five, her mother a mere nineteen years her senior, Ammama was called upon to help raise her siblings. She went on to bring up four children of her own and, unofficially, countless others, as she taught English in the local primary school and eventually became its headmistress.

On the weekends, she would teach paattu (Carnatic classical singing), her truest passion, second only to cooking. Her home—the very home my mother grew up in, and the one I continue to visit to this day—would be abuzz with students of all ages, toting along their parents, children, or housekeepers. Ammama relished in offering them a meal, from the simple rasam, dal, or the creamy yogurt pachadi her family was having for lunch that day, to the more more elaborate fried pakoras or crispy, buttery murukku, or piping hot potato and pea–filled curry puffs whipped up on the spot. These were usually accompanied by spiced chai and a long chat, my grandmother dispensing thoughtful wisdom as easily as she offered these snacks. Ammama perfected the art of feeding a small army, and feeding them well.

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Most of my grandmother’s recipes were scrawled down in cheap kraft paper notebooks as she was cooking them, or transcribed by one of my aunts or great-aunts who wanted to know how to make a dish, Ammama reciting it from memory. The inexactitude of these recipes is both charming and perplexing: one ball of tamarind; enough rice flour to soak up the liquid; fry until it smells deep. Yet they produce magnificent results to all who attempt them—just maybe not as good as how she’d have done it.

When I was 8 or 9, I remember hearing my mother troubleshooting her sped-up recreations of these dishes over long-distance calls with Ammama. My mom would reach her early in the morning, Singapore time, to find out what spice she didn’t roast for long enough or what type of noodle she should’ve bought to approximate the ones found in Ammama’s local market. The dishes seemed so complex and otherworldly—entirely beyond my capabilities at that point, having mastered pasta and scrambled eggs just a few months prior. I’d eat my fill of mee goreng, satay, rojak, and nasi lemak during long summer visits to Singapore, only vaguely remembering them during the nine months that followed.

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But in the summer between my ninth and tenth grade, Ammama came to stay with us, hauling suitcases full of sauces and sambals, fermented soybeans and special seasonings. With no access to a car, and little to nothing to do in suburban Orange County, we’d spend mornings preparing meals together and evenings taking long walks on horse trails and around culs-de-sac. I dutifully chopped, squeezed, blended, and awaited further instruction from her, never actually cooking anything myself—she didn’t dare trust me with that, scolding me every time I attempted to stir or swish.

But with high-powered, full-time working parents and an affinity for cooking from a young age, I’d been on my own in the kitchen for several years at that point. Cooking allowed me to feel creative and independent, even if I had to work hard at it—exercising patience and accepting the occasional failure along the way. Ammama’s cooking seemed so second-nature to her, and I wanted to learn it all. Her creations used ingredients I’d seen my entire life, but I had no inkling of how to approach them; I just took for granted that they somehow ended up in the final dish, adding an unknown oomph. Since she hardly referred to any recipe, it was astonishing how she knew exactly how much of this sauce or that spice or those chiles would make the dish whole.

More than the recipes themselves, I wanted to understand the ease with which Ammama moved through the kitchen, and the care and finesse involved in preparing each element of the meal—slowly layering flavors, stirring a single paste for what felt like hours, never cutting corners to maximize the food’s potential. I’d scribble in my mom’s half-empty kraft notebook every time we completed a dish, certain I’d never be able to make it on my own. Ammama’s cooking style represented an authority and strength, a resourcefulness, a streak of independence, and an assured sense of self that I—an awkward tween proverbially coming into my own—desperately longed to know. To me, especially at this point in life, the certainty and security with oneself that she exhibited seemed unachievable on many levels. I strived to better understand and maybe even one day assume that ease, and adopt that sense of care in everything I made from then on, if never to prepare meals of that complexity.

Many summers after Ammama came to live with us, I made the journey back to Asia, stopping first in Singapore for some nourishment. At that stage, I was considering leaving New York for good (or at least for a while), fully immersed in a career transition but confused about the direction in which I was headed—generally, at an impasse in my life. I hoped that returning to my roots would offer me some comfort, and the space to freely and independently explore my surroundings and thoughts. But no matter how hard I tried to be independent, especially in the kitchen, it was not in Ammama’s protective, nurturing nature to let me.

She or her housekeeper would prepare roasted red pepper bisque, dosas with tomato or coconut chutney, light noodle soups with spring rolls or a tomato, cucumber, and pineapple salad. I rarely found myself in Ammama’s airy, half-outdoor kitchen, knowing that if I tried, she or the housekeeper would ask me what exactly I was searching for from the pantry, or if they could help me prepare what I was craving.

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It took some weeks for Ammama and I to adjust to each other’s constant presence, but when we did, we fell naturally into a rhythm akin to our relationship during my childhood. We partook in early morning market trips to source vegetables, fruits, and steamed buns or zongzi (stuffed glutinous rice dumplings); breakfasts side-by-side, while reading the Straits Times; teatime with snacks at 4 p.m.; long walks at twilight after early dinners. Ammama was accustomed to living alone, single-minded, and generally unswayed from her routine, so instead of trying to cultivate my own world, I adapted to fit her schedule. But I didn’t mind. At least at the start of my trip, it was nice to be taken care of.

One afternoon, during our teatime snack, Ammama turned to me.

“What do you want for dinner? Do you want to make something?”

“Sure! What would you like to eat?” I said, taken aback.

“Surprise me.”

I racked my brain, thinking of what I could make that she might like. I surveyed the fridge, spotting staples like an eggplant, some green bell peppers, a couple of red onions. In the pantry were some red pepper flakes and canned button mushrooms—fresh ones are seldom grown on the island, and imports can be costly. I figured I could craft these into some sort of spicy vegetable dish with penne or spaghetti. I’d brought from the US a few bottles of pasta sauce and some part-skim, low-moisture shredded mozzarella, because cheese is also prohibitively expensive on the island. But pasta itself was nowhere to be found. What else could I do with these Italian-adjacent ingredients and no noodly bed? Rifling through the cupboards again, I found a brand-new container of instant yeast, and knew pizza—my favorite food, incidentally—was the real answer. It’s always the answer. Bobby Flay’s pizza dough recipe, my tried and true when I’m short on time, would work wonderfully. I’d long since committed it to memory.

As I began assembling the ingredients for the dough, Ammama pottered about in the kitchen, looking over my shoulder to ask about proportions and flavoring agents. In one of her giant cast-iron woks, I prepared a quick stir fry-style saute of the eggplant, onions, and slices of bell pepper, seasoning them with a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes and fresh garlic. I fussed when Ammama and her housekeeper tried to slice, stir, or rinse dishes, asserting my independence to confused and annoyed looks. I ignored them and went on.

After some minutes in the toaster oven (Singapore kitchens rarely have built-in ovens), one pizza was ready, and in went another. I placed it on a cutting board, and asked Ammama if she had any basil I could use for a garnish. She pointed me to a potted plant in her front yard with only a few, very young leaves. “Why don’t you put some kottamalli on it? It’ll taste good.” She brandished a leafy bunch of cilantro in her hand. Might as well give it a try.

Ammama's Favorite Pizza
Ammama's Favorite Pizza

I put a few slices on a plate in front of Ammama, anxiously anticipating her reaction. She asked for more red pepper flakes and some grated Parmesan cheese that I’d also brought from home. Becoming full, but reluctant to stop eating, she grabbed one more slice, cut it in half, and asked me to put the rest in a Tupperware to save for lunch tomorrow. I noted that she didn’t share it, as she normally would, when family came around for tea the next day. This was the truest mark of success.

During the rest of my stay in Singapore, Ammama asked for this very pizza no fewer than three times, and repeatedly pressed me for the recipe. “Coin-sized” scoops of yeast or “half-tumblers” of flour wouldn’t work here, so the final time I made it, I wrote down the ingredients in her recipe book, calculating on my phone metric measurements based on the volumetric ones I’d been using. Theoretically, she could make it whenever she wanted. Her toaster oven, surprisingly, worked like a charm.

The dynamic Ammama and I have in the kitchen—where she’s the provider, caretaker, and nurturer—makes me feel okay about temporarily relinquishing my independence. Exhibiting the confidence I’ve gained in my cooking feels less satisfying than the love and care that only Ammama can provide. And while I can now recreate her innovative, labor-intensive recipes myself, I know how much it means to her to make them for me. I think she feels the same way when I cook for her. To my knowledge, she hasn’t made the pizza since I left.

Ammama's Favorite Pizza

Ammama's Favorite Pizza

Brinda Ayer Brinda Ayer
Makes 2 14-inch pizzas

Pizza Crust

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 packet instant dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water, 110° F
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons

Toppings

  • 1 (14-oz) bottle of your favorite pizza sauce
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 eggplant, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
  • 1 small red onion, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into ¼-inch strips
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
  • 4 ounces white button mushrooms, sliced (if fresh aren't available, feel free to use a 4-ounce can of sliced button mushrooms)
  • 2 cups part-skim low-moisture mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • ½ cups basil and cilantro leaves, chopped
Go to Recipe

To Drizzle Over Any Pizza...

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Tags: Vegetarian, My Family Recipe