Mama Zi and Baby T, the mother-daughter team who run Spice Zi Kitchen out of their home, have a lot to teach you. An immersive cooking and dining experience that runs over 3 hours from start to finish, Spice Zi Kitchen does not just teach their guests how to cook Indian Muslim food. Instead, it’s an intimate lesson in family practices, ethnic and religious customs, and the broader history of Indian Muslims in Singapore: who they are, how they live, and what’s important to them.
Halfway through our conversation about the importance of experience, memory, and taste, Mama Zi—Madam Zaithoon Ibrahim—let me in on a small secret. She told me about how she was trying to teach herself how to make appam again, after a long lapse. “So I’m looking at so many recipes,” she explains, “And I’m trying every recipe and they’re not working. Finally, I did something—I sort of tweaked it, with my own intuition—and my daughter,”—she gestures to Baby T, a.k.a. Taahira Ayoob—“was just telling me, today’s one is slightly better—you’re the man!”
Until I am in her kitchen, I will never know exactly what Mama Zi did to make her appams better. Luckily, the spirit of Spice Zi Kitchen is all about letting people in on secrets. When they invite you into their home, Madam Ibrahim and Taahira are immediately Mama Zi and Baby T, encouraging you to ditch the formalities and the awkward distances that populate so much of urban life between strangers in Singapore. Spice Zi Kitchen depends neither on textbooks nor cookbooks; what you will learn about their family and their ancestors who came from Kadayanallur to Singapore in the 1930s is hard to find in official and accessible state histories. Instead, what is central when you cook and eat with Mama Zi and Baby T is women’s knowledge; a very different kind of knowledge from what is typically prized in the public sphere, and a knowledge which tells cultural and ethnic histories in a way that’s intimately wrapped up with knowledge of the home, of cooking, of vital everyday things.
The idea to start Spice Zi Kitchen came out of a few different experiences. This year marks Baby T’s 7th year working in tourism. Through work, she had gained an interest in community-based tourism in countries like Rwanda and Thailand: “When I went there, I learned a lot about their model of how they empower the individuals in this community to cook what works for them, rather than forcing them to do something they don’t know.” But it was a fateful trip to visit friends in Uganda which really kicked off the idea for the business. To thank their friends for showing them around, Mama Zi says, “We wanted to cook a local dish; a Singaporean dish. We made poori with potato masala and payasam, adapting to whatever ingredients we found in their market. They liked it, and we managed to cook within an hour and a half, which was quite a feat. And then we had to catch a bus from Kampala to Kigali, which was quite a chaotic rush!” It was on that bus ride that Baby T began to write down her ideas for what she and her mother could do, and what it could be called. “I told my mother: we’re going to do it.” And so Spice Zi Kitchen was born.
The “Zi” in “Spice Zi” itself refers to Mama Zi, and the recipes and oral histories come from her, handed down by family foodways. Mama Zi is the Kitchen’s font of knowledge, since, as Baby T explains, “I used to be the person who would make a salad for every meal. I knew my mom had that kind of knowledge that I feel other people did not have access to. So I used her as my knowledge resource.” Baby T handles the communications of the business, posting on social media and developing new collaborations and ideas for where to take it. Baby T is a wonderful and inviting presence to follow, particularly on Spice Zi Kitchen’s Instagram. With Pamelia Chia, founder of the website Singapore Noodles and author of the cookbook Wet Market to Table: A Modern Approach to Fruit and Vegetables, she has started an ongoing initiative called #PassthePasar, aiming to reinvigorate younger Singaporeans’ relationship with wet markets. Watching her stories, which are full of detailed explanations and yet-unanswered questions, a viewer can learn what she learns about local and regional ingredients. How do we know something is fresh? When is the best time to buy it? These are things which Baby T is unafraid to try to get the answers to, even if the answers aren’t always clear.
“I think it was when I started going with my mom to Tekka Market to get groceries for Spice Zi Kitchen, where I realized, my God, I don’t know how to say so many things in English,” says Baby T. “What’s the purpose [of this ingredient] beyond this thing that we are using it for? I started asking her a million questions. And she also didn’t know the answers for some, so we had to ask the vendors. And I was like, this knowledge can be shared. I realised through the Instagram postings that many young people were scared to ask… because when you go to the supermarkets—so transactional,” Baby T explains. “And then sometimes they give you information,” Mama Zi adds. “Take it! The aunties and uncles, they know a lot of things. They look at the prawns and say, oh, this isn’t good. Just get that—that’s better.” Spice Zi Kitchen knows that they’re not the only teachers—instead, they invite us to be open to knowledge from all sources. There are things which only come with experience, and which the uncles and aunties at the wet market just know, or which are difficult to explain with words.
This is why Spice Zi Kitchen is such a necessary addition to Singapore’s food history. You couldn’t get what you learn from Spice Zi Kitchen just from reading a book, but through speech, feeling, and taste. The demands of modern Singapore have left many young people alienated from so many kinds of knowledge: how to speak our languages; how to tell our ethnic histories; how to engage in local cultural practices; how to prepare and cook food that our grandparents and parents could make with their eyes closed. But the hope that Spice Zi Kitchen provides, I think, is that these kinds of knowledge, which have made up the rich cultural and social fabric of just one or two generations prior, are still available to us. All we have to do is ask questions, taste everything, and be open with each other. The body and its work are an endless source of wisdom, and once we learn something new, we, too, can pass it on. When Mama Zi and Baby T usher you into their kitchen to cook and taste, and when they feed you and talk with you over a meal at their dining table, they don’t just teach you facts about Indian Muslims in Singapore. They give you the tools to learn about other people, and about yourself.
Just Food is a five-part series. Click through to read more: