How Cooking Helped Save My Life

By Text by Gregory Leow @ Makansutra and images courtesy of Sivarani M Rajangam. - Thursday, Jun 28, 2012

Local business entrepreneur Sivarani M Rajangam had it all.


Cancer survivor Sivarani M Rajangam. Image courtesy of Sivarani M Rajangam.


She runs a successful chain of beauty salons called Rupini’s and has a daughter who was due to study medicine in Australia. She was really looking forward to settling her daughter into her digs in Melbourne when the news came.


She was diagnosed with breast cancer.


“I remember the exact date. February the 2nd last year. I went for my biopsy on Chinese New Year’s eve and the doctor called me a few days later to confirm that it was breast cancer. It was stressful after receiving the news. I had to make a lot of decisions in my life,” recalls Rani, who is in her early 40s.


She spent only four days to try to understand what cancer is and what will happen to her, to seek a second opinion from another doctor, to figure out if she had enough insurance and to prepare for her daughter going away.


“My daughter was so shocked and insisted that I stay behind to deal with my cancer, but I went anyway,” she added.


Her subsequent rounds of chemo and radiation left her drained and fatigued.


“My hair was dropping, my nails went dark and that was really challenging as my business is in the aesthetic field and was about being pretty. So I didn’t tell the public and not even my extended family about it,” she says.


Her entire perception of life changed immediately. From a stressful lifestyle without proper sleep, she started sleeping well and ate her mother’s cooking every day.


“I used to be busy, was quite the OCD and a control freak. Always chasing after people. Now, all that is minimised and I just let things be,” says Rani.


She stopped going out, started bonding very well with her daughter and her mother and if friends wanted to see her, she would invite them over for a home cooked meal instead.


Most importantly, food became the centre of her life and she only realised how much she enjoyed it after her first round of chemo.


“The first seven days I lost my appetite, but I still craved for all my favourite dishes. I was always watching food programmes,” says Rani.


Her mother took charge and did all the cooking for Rani and she was fed nothing but organic and free-range home cooked food.


Rani always knew that cooking for her was her mother’s way of showing love but the fact never hit home until now. She also saw the importance of how particular her mother was about cooking. Even the simple act of sautéing, you’re only supposed to “throw in the vegetables when the fragrance comes out.”


Food brought her hope and joy and kept her mood up during the year of chemo and radiation treatments.


“Every day was satisfyingly routine. I looked forward to a nice breakfast, then reading my favourite book and watch television, and then look forward to lunch or dinner.”


Hardcore meat-eater Rani was never a fish fan but developed her love for fish during her year of treatment, “I was just craving fish all the time. Pan fried, grilled, angoli, kurau or salmon. I just had to have it all.”


With so much free time, Rani did what she always wanted to do and started to indulge in her love of cooking. She browsed through cookbooks, got tips from her mum and started experimenting in the kitchen.


Rani with her friend, PS Raj and his cousin, Kanthan Arumugam.


Rani’s recipes went down so well with friends and family that her friend, PS Raj and his cousin, Kanthan Arumugam approached her with a proposal to start a restaurant with her own take of South Indian dishes. Called What The Fish! The restaurant opened its doors at Serangoon Gardens in April of this year, two months after she was certified free of cancer.


“Here, we try our best not to use preserved masalas and colouring and preservatives, natural. No msg at all,” added Rani.


What The Fish dish.


Her proudest dish is her What The Fish! fish curry dish, which has a fusion of South Indian and Malay flavours. Instead of the usual masala premixes, fresh herbs and spices like chilli, cumin and fennel are ground together with garlic and turmeric (high in anti-oxidants) to give a fresher, lighter take on the typical fish curry dish.


But more than just a great tasting dish, it is also closest to her heart as it represents that year of cancer treatment where she changed her perspective about life, got closer to her mother and daughter and re-ignited her love for cooking and food.


“When the restaurant opened, it was just different. It was a fresh start. I had a new business venture, I was free of cancer, my hair and nails had grown back. It was a second chance at a new life.” Rani beams.


What The Fish Recipe


5 pieces red snapper or tenggiri (steak cut)

3 big onions

6 small onions

1 tbsp white dhall

1 tbsp mustard seeds

10 garlic cloves

A few curry leaves

Spice paste (all grounded together)

10 Dry chillies

4 Fresh red chillies

10 Shallots

1 tbsp. pounded cumin

1 tbsp. pounded fennel

1 thumb-size of fresh turmeric


Heat the milk from one coconut, then when boiling, mix in the ground ingredients. Boil for at least 20 minutes.


Dip fish into cooked mixture cook for roughly 5 minutes or more till fish is cooked (do not over-cook the fish) and then remove.


In the meantime, sauté the onions, garlic, dhall, curry leaves and mustard seeds in a separate wok until fragrant or golden brown.


Add the coconut and spice mixture, then add the fish and stir. Ready to serve.


What The Fish! 68 Serangoon Garden Way, Tel: 6296 1891. Open daily from 11am to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10.30pm, except Mondays.