For the love of traditional Negri food
Heirloom recipes from Negri Sembilan have been passed down through the generations in one family.
A STONE’S throw from the Seri Menanti Palace in Negri Sembilan is the beautiful kampung house of Tunku Datuk Nazihah Tunku Mohd Ros.
At 71, Tunku Nazihah’s diplomatic days are over, but she was once the Malaysian ambassador to France, New Zealand, Bangladesh and many other countries.
Today, while she remains as active as ever, she rather fancies being a food ambassador, especially in promoting traditional Negri Sembilan food – much of which can be traced to the 14th century migration of the Minangkabau people.
She has the right credentials after all, being a long-standing and well-respected denizen of Negri Sembilan with royal familial ties, and more so because she comes from a family with a great love of food and cooking,
Which is also why the central focus of her home is the kitchen, which is large and spacious, and hosts a pangkin in a corner.
The pangkin (communal platform) is an antiquated feature that no longer exists in most homes, but Tunku Nazihah had hers custom built – she has very fond memories of her grandmother’s pangkin, where all the women used to gather for kenduri prep work, and to eat afterwards.
In this kitchen, Tunku Nazihah reigns supreme. A small, sweet lady, she cuts an imposing figure in the kitchen, as she inspects various pots and pans to check that the contents are in order.
In the background, her 34-yearold daughter Wan Alleena Faiza Abdullah is busy whipping up a modern pavlova with local influences, combining the knowledge she has gleaned from her mother with the many inspiring culinary tips and tricks she has picked up from her years of travelling all over the world.
Outside, sitting gracefully on a chair on the patio is Tunku Habibah Tunku Yaacob, the 92-year-old family matriarch. Tunku Habibah’s memory is fading a little, but her cognisance of age-old recipes is still very much intact and she easily rattles off recipes by heart, like a seasoned piano player playing a favourite piece from memory.
When she tells me the recipe for her sambal gesek, for example, she says she uses chillies. “Just regular red chillies?” I ask, and she retorts “Cili api lah!”as though it couldn’t be more obvious.
The three women are all great cooks – Tunku Habibah learnt how to cook at 14 from her own mother, mastering traditional dishes like rendang daging and gulai ikan, while Tunku Nazihah learnt how to cook from her mother when she was six, perfecting the old-fashioned way of cooking over hot charcoal fires made with coconut fibres (which intensifies the flavour of the food), rather than gas or electric stoves.
“I was born when the Japanese were just leaving, so life was hard. Even if you had money, there was nothing to buy. So we had to make use of what we had, cooking with rubberwood,” she says.
Alleena grew up in very different environments, a result of her mother’s postings around the globe. She learnt how to cook from her mothin er her teens; despite being far from home, Tunku Nazihah made a point of cooking local dishes as much as possible.
“In a sense, she never left the kampung, because she always made an effort to make traditional food like pulut kuning. The first thing we would look for when my mother was posted anywhere would be a Chinatown, where the Asians were, so she could find all the necessities. With some postings, she would have to import things. And whenever she travelled, she would carry things like tempoyak in bulk, or she would ask somewho one was coming over to bring sambals, chillies or spices. No matter where I was in the world, I always had local food,” says Alleena.
Alleena’s appreciation for local food continues to grow, and she has made huge efforts to learn to cook the traditional dishes she grew up with, although she does tend to modernise them sometimes.
“As you grow up, you are more appreciative of these dishes, so I often call my mother to get recipes or learn directly from her. And when my grandma was healthier, I would go to the kitchen and ask her to make more complex dishes. I would even take the leaves of plants and paste them in my scrapbook, so I knew what they were in case the older generation wasn’t around. As I grow older, I feel that learning these dishes was more important, because they are fast disappearing,” she says.
For Tunku Nazihah, making local heritage dishes has always been important. As Malaysian ambassador, she went to the extent of cooking local dishes for functions on her overseas postings – for up to 250 foreign guests at a time – just to give people an idea of what Malaysian food is all about.
“I was not a very traditional ambassador – I love cooking, and cooked all the time. In France, I always invited the top chefs and hotel managers to eat at my home. Once, I made kuih bakar and put a little bit of durian as a flavouring agent. They said, ‘It’s very nice and subtle – what is it?’ When I told them it was durian, they said, ‘Oh, we thought it was horrible!’ And I told them, ‘Not if you know how to use the right amount!’” she recounts, laughing at the memory.
Tunku Nazihah says the cultural importance of food cannot be underestimated, and when she was overseas, she saw it as an opportunity for people to get to know one of her country’s most important assets better.
“We can promote culture through food, so I did that. I made popiah, curries (of course I didn’t make them so hot lah!), Chinese soups, etc., because I felt that this was part of the promotion of the country, and that people who enjoyed the food would then visit Malaysia,” she says.
These days, Tunku Habibah has retired from kitchen duties, passing the mantle on to Tunku Nazihah and Alleena.
Tunku Nazihah continues to produce all the traditional Negri Sembilan dishes that she grew up with, like pengat ubi pisang with gula anau (palm sugar), puteri mandi, rendang daging and ayam, kuih bakar and gulai pucuk labu with river prawns, among a host of others.
She says the most important element of making traditional Minang dishes is knowing how to balance the different flavours together in each dish.
“You want to keep the traditional way, but cooking traditional dishes, especially the lauk-lauk, is trial and error, because it’s the agak-agak method of cooking. In Negri Sembilan cooking, the most important thing is being able to bal-
ance three things – sourness, salt, and heat from the bird’s eye chillies. Being able to judge the perfect balance comes from years of experience,” she says.
Tunku Nazihah is also very particular about the things that go into her food, especially elements like coconut (or nyior, as it’s called in the state), which form a central part of Negri Sembilan dishes like rendang and gulai, and which can make or break a dish. According to her, coconuts are categorised as: young (kelapa muda), which is used for the soft flesh or to drink coconut water; mature (kelapa tua), which is mid-way between young and fully ripe and is mostly used in pengat, gulai lemak and desserts like kuih; or fully ripe (kelapa masak), which are traditionally utilised for rendangs and gulai cili api.
“In our cuisine, it is very important to use the right type of coconuts, otherwise the taste will differ,” she reiterates.
While Tunku Nazihah is a great believer in traditional Malay cooking, she is also encouraging of her daughter’s use of Western ingredients in classic dishes, in keeping with the growing trend of mixing and matching and combining the new with the old.
“I think the young generation must be bold enough to marry traditional and modern flavours, because you have to evolve as you go along – not forgetting your roots but combining classic flavours with contemporary additions,” she says.
GULAI DAGING KERING WITH TERUNG TELUNJUK
1 kg beef sirloin
2 to 3 tbsp ground bird’s eye chillies
1 litre coconut milk from 2 fully ripe cocotaste nuts salt, to
8 to 10 terung telunjuk (wild brinjal) 2 medium green mangoes, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced, for garnish
Grill beef over a charcoal fire for 30 to 35 minutes, turning continuously. Alternatively, grill beef in the oven at 180°C for between 30 and 40 minutes. Once done, remove, allow to cool and slice beef into small pieces.
In a pot, combine grilled beef and ground bird’s eye chillies and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add coconut milk and salt. When small bubbles appear, add the terung telunjuk. Simmer until the terung is almost fully cooked, then add mangoes.
Cook mangoes till big bubbles appear (this indicates it is ready). Garnish with sliced chillies.
IKAN SEMBILANG BERLADO
Serves 6 to 8 people
1 kg ikan sembilang (catfish), washed a handful of asam jawa (tamarind) salt, to taste oil, for deep-frying
15 shallots, peeled
2 big onions, peeled
10 to 13 red chillies
2 to 3 tbsp blended dried chillies
Cut each fish in half and mix with the asam jawa. Rub the asam jawa into the fish and allow it to marinate for 15 minutes, to remove any fishy smell. Wash and drain, then rub the fish with salt.
Place the oil into a wok, and deepfry fish till crisp. Remove from wok and set aside. Drain the excess oil, leaving about 5 tablespoons in the wok.
Place the shallots, onions and red chillies in a blender and process to a paste. Fry the paste, stirring occasionally, with the dried chillies for 8 to 10 minutes, till fragrant and the chilli has darkened. Add salt to taste, and then add in fried fish. Stir to make sure everything is mixed well. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
MASAK LEMAK PUCUK LABU
1 litre coconut milk, from one old coconut salt, to taste
1 stalk lemongrass, smashed
2 to 3 shallots, sliced
250g freshwater prawns, peeled, with tails left intact or
2 tbsp dried prawns, roughly chopped 500g young pumpkin shoots, cut into pieces if too large
2 red chillies, sliced, for garnish
Place coconut milk in a large pot over medium heat. Add salt, lemongrass, shallots and prawns or dried prawns. Stir occasionally. When gravy is boiling, add pumpkin shoots. Cook, stirring, till shoots soften and are cooked through. Remove from heat, garnish with red chillies, and serve immediately.
PENGAT UBI KAYU
1 kg ubi kayu (cassava), skin removed and cut into large chunks salt, to taste
400g gula anau (palm sugar), cut into large cubes
500ml coconut milk (from 1 old coconut) 2 pandan leaves, knotted
Place cassava in a large pot, with enough water to cover, over hight heat. Add a little salt and cook until cassava is softened (but not overcooked), about 15 to 20 minutes. Add gula anau, coconut milk and pandan, stirring occasionally. Pengat is ready when the sugar has melted, and the santan mixture is boiling. Remove the pandan leaves and serve warm.
4 pandan leaves
1.2 litres water
1 kg glutinous rice flour
1.2 litres coconut milk (from 1 1/2 old coconuts)
400g gula anau (or more, if desired), cut into large cubes
1 young coconut, grated salt, to taste
Blend 2 of the pandan leaves with 200ml of the water to make a green juice. Add pandan juice, little by little, to glutinous rice flour till it forms a firm dough. Make small marble-sized shapes and press them each lightly in the centre, making slight indentations in each.
Place the remaining water in a pot and bring to a boil. Add the glutinous rice balls into the water, without stirring. When they float, remove them from the pot and place in a basin of iced water. Repeat till all glutinous rice balls are cooked.
Knot the remaining pandan leaves, and add them to a pot with the coconut milk, gula anau and salt in another pot and cook over medium heat, stirring till the mixture boils. Add grated coconut and stir till cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes. Finally add the glutinous rice balls and stir for a few more minutes. Remove from heat.
Traditional Minang dishes flank a very modern durian pavlova – ancient and modern culinary offerings on the same table.
Coconuts are important ingredients in Negri Sembilan cooking; according to Tunku Nazihah, different kinds yield totally different flavours, and their usage depends on the dish being prepared.
Traditional Negri Sembilan food is very important to this family; they have passed their recipes down through the generations. From left: Tunku Nazihah, Alleena and Tunku Habibah. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star