Po­tent mem­o­ries

Sin­ga­porean Bryan Koh spent two years of eat­ing, re­search and writ­ing on the cui­sine of Ke­lan­tan, Tereng­ganu and Pa­hang.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By IVY SOON star2@thes­tar.com.my

SIN­GA­POREAN au­thor Bryan Koh re­mem­bers dis­tinctly the first Ke­lan­tanese meal he had in a restau­rant in Kuala Lumpur two years ago.

“It’s alchemy: rice noo­dles, co­conutty fish gravy un­touched by spice, a fris­son of herbs. The fish and co­conut re­ally come through in the white sauce, and I love how the ulam sharp­ens and en­hances it, rather than drown­ing it.

“It was a sparkling lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence,” re­lates Koh, who had un­til then only known mostly the food of the Malaysian west coast from his mother who was from Pe­nang and his grand­mother who was from Ipoh.

The de­li­cious lak­sam meal set more than just his taste buds tin­gling. It also led Koh to his third book on food cul­ture in this re­gion. He had writ­ten Milk Pigs and Vi­o­let Gold: Philip­pine Cook­ery in 2014, which won the Best Food Book Award at the Philip­pine Na­tional Book Awards that year.

His sec­ond book, 0451 Morn­ings Are For Mont Hin Gar: Burmese Food Sto­ries, won third place in the Best Asian Cook­book cat­e­gory at the World Gour­mand Cook­book Awards 2016.

Koh who lives in Sin­ga­pore and co-owns cake com­pa­nies Chalk Farm and Milk Moons there, stud­ied Math­e­mat­ics but veered into food jour­nal­ism.

“Food writ­ing was some­thing that hap­pened spon­ta­neously dur­ing my time in uni­ver­sity. I was a free­lance jour­nal­ist and wrote travel and food columns. I grad­u­ally grew to love writ­ing about food and de­vel­oped a knack for it,” says Koh.

He has been cook­ing since he was six; “from a very young age, food has been my lens onto the world”.

“Ev­ery sen­sa­tion, ev­ery tex­ture, scent, flavour, is but a tile of a mo­saic that I want as lav­ish and ex­pan­sive as pos­si­ble. For many, a dish is a co­or­di­nate that con­nects us to a par­tic­u­lar place and time, to a cer­tain group of peo­ple and their his­tory.

“It’s an in­stinc­tive process that can be over­whelm­ing and by putting it down in words, I feel I am mak­ing sense of it, re­in­forc­ing what I know and my re­la­tion­ship with a cui­sine – if that does not sound too pre­ten­tious – and hon­our­ing it,” says Koh who em­barked on two years of eat­ing, re­search and writ­ing on the cui­sine of Ke­lan­tan, Tereng­ganu and Pa­hang.

He be­gan with Ke­lan­tan, trav­el­ling there “in the name of re­search, in the spirit of ad­ven­ture”.

On one of his trips, he vis­ited Be­sut in Tereng­ganu and re­alised that the state shared many dishes with Ke­lan­tan. And so Tereng­ganu en­tered the equa­tion.

A year af­ter that, he in­cluded Pa­hang af­ter re­al­is­ing how lit­tle has been writ­ten about its food.

He started out by con­duct­ing pre­lim­i­nary re­search on the sub­ject as there is scant doc­u­men­ta­tion on the foods from th­ese parts.

“My re­search in­volved es­tab­lish­ing con­tacts and in­ter­view­ing them. I was lucky to have some of th­ese con­tacts take me around their home­towns.

“They were proud of their cui­sine – and right­fully so – and knew that I was keen to learn and eat as much as pos­si­ble! They were aw­fully gen­er­ous with their time and were not at all cagey about shar­ing what they knew of their food, in­clud­ing those from their child­hood,” shares Koh. Some of th­ese con­tacts in­clude renowned artist Chan Fee Ming who lives in Kuala Tereng­ganu and de­signer Tino Soon of the now de­funct Sal­abi­anca la­bel.

Bek­woh is tes­ta­ment to Koh’s cu­rios­ity and fas­ci­na­tion with the cui­sine of the east coast. Its ti­tle is from the Ke­lan­tanese lingo that means big feast, which Koh chose to cap­ture the lav­ish­ness and big-heart­ed­ness of the re­gion’s food.

Koh’s es­says which in­tro­duces each chap­ter not only take read­ers on an ex­cit­ing – and pos­si­bly ex­otic – jour­ney, but also in­forms and ed­u­cates on the lo­cal food cul­ture.

They are a com­pelling mix­ture of anec­dotes, ex­pe­ri­ences and ob­ser­va­tions. More im­por­tantly, they doc­u­ment the lo­cal food wis­dom and knowl­edge which Koh strength­ens with his re­search.

The es­say en­ti­tled “Kam­pung Cina”, for in­stance, is on the Per­anakan com­mu­nity in Ke­lan­tan and Tereng­ganu, which are not so well-known out­side of their states.

As much as he de­lights in the lo­cal lingo and names of the food, Koh also takes care to in­clude ba­sic in­for­ma­tion and generic or sci­en­tific terms so that the con­tent is ac­ces­si­ble to a wide au­di­ence. Then there is the in­jec­tion of his hu­mour here and there, from wryly sur­ren­der­ing to a co­pi­ous amount of rice to call­ing roti Jala Simp­son-yel­low.

Koh ex­plores be­yond the fa­mil­iar­ity of nasi da­gang and ayam per­cik. He writes about lo­cal in­gre­di­ents such as sare, a Ke­lan­tanese seaweed that you have to soak and dry till it turns from black to white, and Tereng­ganu’s dip­ping sauce, colek, and Pa­hang’s pa­paya ro­jak, gonyok.

“I find the flavour com­bi­na­tions re­ally ex­cit­ing. Fenu­greek seeds and sliv­ered gin­ger are of­ten slipped into many co­conut-based dishes, sweet or savoury. The ozone salin­ity of the sare (red al­gae) against the spice and tang of the sam­bal tu­mis for ker­abu sare is spec­tac­u­lar. I also love the per­fumed sour­ness of singgang against the fire sup­plied by sam­bals of pounded chilli and mango,” says Koh.

He is most par­tial to torch gin­ger, bunga kan­tan and ulam ra­jah.

“I adore man­isan nira – it is deep, vel­vety and smoul­der­ing and yet shim­mer­ing and fresh on the palate.

“I ac­tu­ally like tem­poyak. I grew up splash­ing ba­goong (a fer­mented fish condi­ment from the Philip­pines) on chopped toma­toes and salted eggs to eat with rice, so I have a fond­ness for budu, too,” adds Koh, whose open­ness to ex­plor­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents is re­flected in his col­lec­tion of recipes.

Koh also has an ex­ten­sive chap­ter on kuih muih, with recipes he has in­ter­preted to make them more ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple out­side the re­gion and cul­ture.

“Ac­tu­ally, I’m not a trained baker. I’m not even a trained cook.

I am self-taught. Kuih is not dif­fi­cult to make, but it can be te­dious (the ex­tract­ing of pan­dan juice and co­conut milk, the wash­ing, soak­ing and steam­ing of gluti­nous rice) and tricky (mak­ing sure you have steam­ers with the right-sized per­fo­ra­tions or the right kind of rice flour).

“And as most kuehs in­volve a cer­tain alchemy whereby very few in­gre­di­ents are trans­formed into some­thing quite ex­tra­or­di­nary, ev­ery lit­tle de­tail counts. Short­cuts and bot­tled essences of­ten don’t work out too bril­liantly.”

Through Bek­woh, Koh hopes to present some­thing “mem­o­rable and po­tent”. As with his other books, the mes­sage is also that ev­ery state (re­gion/coun­try) has some­thing won­der­ful to of­fer.

“In Sin­ga­pore most of us do not think be­yond Pe­nang, Melaka, KL or Ipoh when it comes to eat­ing. Some­times it takes more work to find, but when you do, it’s in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing.”

Read the re­view of Bek­woh on the right.

Break­fast in Ke­lan­tan. — Photo: BRYAN KOH

Koh was cu­ri­ous to ex­plore Ke­lan­tan food af­ter a ‘sparkling’ meal in a restau­rant in Kuala Lumpur. Mak­ing akok.

From left: Bele­bat ubi stelo, ker­abu so­tong ker­ing and gu­lai lengkuas kun­yit. — Pho­tos: BRYAN KOH/Bek­woh

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