By Kim Choe
RECIPE: ANZAC biscuits

Whenever I tell people about Kitchen Chapters, they will always eventually ask, “What’s your food story?”

I didn’t have an answer to this for a long time, which embarrassed me because there I was telling everyone how passionate I was about helping people tell their family histories through food – and I couldn’t even think of how it connected me to mine.

What I did know was that my love of baking came from my mum, and I had vivid memories of being perched atop a chair in our kitchen as a youngster, helping her. (And by “helping”, I really just mean licking the bowl.)

I emailed her to ask if she had any photos of me in the role of baking assistant. What she sent back was largely what I’d been expecting: me, at various stages of awkwardness – chubby cheeks, giant glasses, mouth full of braces – cutting cookies first from Play-Doh and, later, from real dough. But the pictures also told of more than just my longstanding love of baking.

A message accompanied one of the photos, of two-and-a-half-year-old me sitting at a tiny table. I am sporting a bowl haircut and oversized apron, concentrating with all my might as I prepare to plunge a plastic cookie cutter into some lumpy pink dough.

“That little table is from Lasem, and that’s where your great-grandma and grandma used to roll pastry to make skins for spring rolls and wontons,” Mum wrote.

The city of Lasem in Central Java, Indonesia, is more than 7000 kilometres away from our home in Auckland, New Zealand, where that photo was taken. I was bemused that the table was still being used for rolling dough on, decades after my mum’s family left Indonesia.

The table made its way across in 1968, when my grandfather decided to migrate with his young family to give them a better life. Unrest was spreading throughout Indonesia and my family, who had by then moved to the city of Bandung, was a target.


My mum Tjoe (R) and her cousin Lioe outside the Bandung house in 2012

“In 1965 there were riots against all the Chinese people,” my mum recalls. “They were throwing stones right around our house. All the glass was broken and we were quite scared. We had to hide at the neighbors’ house – they were Indonesian.”

The violence was partly driven by resentment against the Chinese and their wealth, and also by suspicions that many Chinese people had ties to the Indonesian Communist Party, which was accused by General Suharto (later President) of mounting a failed coup against the government. Suharto began introducing policies to marginalize Chinese Indonesians, fuelling the anger against them.

My mum’s family fled, barely telling anyone they were leaving. The few pieces of furniture they shipped over to Auckland served as a reminder of home and also provided some continuity in a foreign land – my grandmother resumed rolling wonton skins at the tiny table as soon as it arrived.

Eventually, New Zealand recipes started creeping into the family’s cooking repertoire. My mum became a keen baker when she moved south to Dunedin for university in the 1970s, although she says she only started out of poor-student-necessity. She developed a fondness for Afghans, a dense chocolate biscuit which are a New Zealand staple but of unknown origin (and don’t appear to have any relation to Afghanistan).

Although Mum’s student days are far behind her now, she remains a prolific baker of all manner of cakes, cookies, slices and desserts. These days, I habitually make a beeline for the oven as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house for dinner, sniffing the air and peering inside to see if there’s anything on the rise.

Kim Choe Lasem

Visiting my family’s home in Lasem with my husband in 2012

You’re also just as likely to find the same smells of browning sugar and melting butter wafting from my own kitchen, or that of my younger sister. She loves to make anything featuring puff pastry; I went through a definitive cupcake phase (even developing a recipe inspired by Indonesian flavors), but my preference now is for cookies – “biscuits”, as we non-Americans call them.

The appeal is in their simplicity. Good cookies can be made using just a few ingredients. They bake quickly and, best of all, are easy to make in big batches for sharing.

One of my favorite recipes is for ANZACs, a crispy oat biscuit dating back to the 1920s. Just as that tiny little table holds my Indonesian-Chinese heritage and the key to my love of baking, the origins of this biscuit are a reminder of the history of my home.