For the love of tra­di­tional Ne­gri food

Heir­loom recipes from Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan have been passed down through the gen­er­a­tions in one fam­ily.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By ABI­RAMI DURAI star2@thes­

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.


Serves 6

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.


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.


Serves 6

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.


Serves 6

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.


Serves 6

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

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