Tabitha Ong Tune
Tabitha Ong Tune
Dish: “Mama’s” Curry
Cooking in Nashville since 2001
Tradition in Singapore usually calls for a young bride and groom to move into the home of the groom’s parents. But for Tabitha Ong Tune, whose father had 9 siblings, tradition shifted slightly—her family moved in with her maternal grandparents. Her parents were only 20 and both working full time when she was born, so it was her grandmother, who Tabitha calls “Mama,” who raised her.
Mama cooked for the family every day. Having dropped out of school around seventh grade, due to the occupation of Singapore during World War II, Mama married young and taught herself how to cook.
“She did all of our meals,” Tabitha says. “She always planned out: Monday was this dish, and Tuesday was this. On Fridays, we didn’t eat meat, so it was fish or eggs or shrimp, because we’re Catholic. I think that was just her thing—she really enjoyed doing it.” Tabitha remembers Mama watching the show Wok With Yan, holding a notepad and scribbling down new ideas. “She wasn’t shy about finding new recipes.”
Like many families in Singapore, Tabitha’s had a young woman from the Philippines living with them—her name is LV but Tabitha calls her “the helper.” LV cooked, cleaned, and took care of the children in exchange for a place to live and money that she would send back to her own family. Eventually, it was LV who learned all of Mama’s recipes.
“[My grandmother] was meticulous—down to pulling the tails off the bean sprouts—and from what I can recall, she had pretty good knife skills. For someone who wasn’t trained, she just knew,” Tabitha says. “She watched cooking shows, she just learned by doing it. And everything was verbal: throw this in there, it smells like this, and you add a bit of this, and it’s a bit of this and a pinch of that. It was never ‘two tablespoons of salt.’ So, that was how I learned.”
When it was time to go to college, Tabitha chose a school in the United States—she wanted to work in film or television. At Emerson College in Boston, she met her husband, Tyson, a Nashvillian. After graduation, they moved here thinking it would just be a stopping point before heading out to Hollywood.
“I ended up getting a job with a local radio station; he ended up getting a job he loved, in web development. And then all the friends he’d known all his life started coming back, too. So, you know, we had our little tribe, so to speak,” she says.
But while she found herself at home in Nashville, rediscovering her native food was a challenge. Unlike Boston, which has its own Chinatown, Nashville options were slim.
Eventually, Tabitha started cooking the dishes she remembered from home. There was a peanut soup that she loved and attempted. And she regularly makes stir-fry. Now, Tabitha is intent on mastering “Mama’s” Curry.
Her grandmother had a handful of books, mostly about traditional Singaporean dishes. As LV learned from Mama, she also snapped photos of the recipes; mainly the dog-eared pages that Mama cooked from the most. She’s sent a number of them to Tabitha.
“This one is probably by Violet Oon, who I would liken to, maybe the Julia Child of Singapore,” Tabitha says. The book is filled with dishes like Hainanese chicken rice and this version of curry, which the family would eat on it’s own with a big loaf of French bread, tearing off hunks to dip into the fragrant stew.
Tabitha’s handwritten version of the recipe omits the coconut milk, which is how her grandmother made it.
Mama passed way in 2015. On Tabitha’s first attempt at making her curry, she said she couldn’t get the spiciness quite right. The recipe calls for a very specific type of curry powder, made by Violet Oon. “Next time I go home, I’m going to look for it and bring some back,” she says—and keep perfecting the recipe that reminds her of home.