A culinary legacy is preserved for future generations with the re-publication of the classic cooking book Medan Selera, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
AS I amble through the en-trance and into the belly of Restoran Puteri in Sg Penchala, Selangor, I can’t help feeling like I’ve somehow stumbled into a private family gathering. Furtively I glance around me, half expecting to be escorted out by some bouncer in tuxedo for trespassing, but thankfully everybody’s just too engrossed in each other to notice.
Up ahead at the makeshift rostrum, a slim, bespectacled woman in kebaya (whom I later discover to be Mariam Asha’ari Becker) is agitatedly trying to obtain some semblance of quiet so that she can proceed with her welcoming speech. A giggle escapes someone’s mouth as Mariam hollers into the microphone and threatens to throw people out if they continue to disregard her calls for order. I’m sure she’s just kidding!
The event, attended by the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife Puan Sri Noorainee Abd Rahman, celebrates the re-launch of a classic cooking book that was once a famous source of reference for cooks and caterers in the 1950s, titled Nostalgia Medan Selera, authored by the late Ahmad Yaakub Al-Johori. A compilation of traditional recipes from various communities, especially Johor, Arab, Java and Peranakan from the early 1950s, the book also reflects the richness of Johor traditional dishes.
Today, it’s being unveiled to those present (most of whom, I later discover are members of the Al-Johori clan) in its “modernised” version, tweaked somewhat by his seven grandchildren to ensure that their grandfather’s legacy can be preserved for future generations.
The seven grandchildren, who are also the joint publishers of the book, are Faizah Aziz Wells, Mariam, Halimah Asha’ari, Faridah A. Aziz, Hamidah Asha’ari, Habibah Asha’ari and Mohd Zakir Mohd Zahir.
“Obviously none of us could have done this on our own so I suggested that we took on this project together,” says Halimah Asha’ari, the former lecturer at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, her eyes sparkling as she recounts the beginnings of the journey to give the book its overdue facelift. I’m lucky to be able to corner her amidst all the “madness”. “The brainchild behind it was the lone male in the group, our cousin, Zakir Mohd Zahir or Kiki, as he’s known.”
MODERNISING A LEGACY
Halimah says that the first edition of the book was written in Jawi (Arabic font) and the old measuring system was used for the recipes.
“For the modern version, we’ve used the metric system of measurement that’s more suitable for the younger generation who probably has no idea what the old measuring terms like tahil, cupak and camca are.”
Ensuring that the measurements tallied up was in fact one of the main challenges of this undertaking, confides the 61-year-old. “If Tok said ‘one cup of santan, we had to know what is the equivalent in metric,” she says.
The other challenge was distance and the fact that some of the siblings had their respective careers to juggle. “For example, Hamidah was a consular general in Perth when she was doing this. I was lecturing and my sister Habibah is the chairman of the Tun Razak Chair at the University of Ohio.”
It took them a year to complete the book. “The writing and the various revisions took nine months and the editing was done last June. Everyone had their respective parts to do and then my husband did the final editing,” says Halimah.
With more than 135 recipes to grapple with, it was decided that each worked on certain number of chapters. Says Halimah: “I did the division. The chapters were allocated randomly, for example, I’d take on recipes 1 to 30, and the next person would work on chapters 31 to 60 and so on. And because of this, I had the most heartache as I ended up with five biryanis — they’re the most difficult!”
Her grandfather, fondly known as Haji Awang and who died in November 1959 at the age of 68, had his book published twice — in 1956 and 1958. The books, Medan Selera and Hidangan Terpilih, contained recipes that he’d collected and were written in Jawi.
“When one of his children, my aunt, the late Hajjah Khadijah romanised the versions in 1971, she combined the two books into one,” says Halimah. “Later, she printed another book under the title Medan Selera, which contained only half the total number of recipes from the earlier editions. It was simpler and more concise. Then, she printed another edition but this next one she divided into two. And now we have this. We decided to refer to the original Medan Selera, the Jawi version. This is the fourth romanised edition.”
None of the books were sold in bookshops as their grandfather firmly believed that it was “... more of a family thing, a labour of love,” confides Halimah. “Somehow he felt that putting it out in the shops would be too impersonal. Those who wanted the book were people already familiar with it, really coveted it and were quite happy to search for it. The books have always been in demand and we’ve been be able to ‘sell’ from home, by word-of-mouth, from family distributions.”
There are 1,000 copies of this latest edition in hardcover and soon, soft cover versions will be out.
“We hope to translate the book into English sometime soon. Our publisher wants to bring this book to the international book fair in Frankfurt,” says Halimah with pride.
Nostalgia Medan Selera retails at RM119.90 and can be purchased online via www.medanselera.shakespot.net
Haji Ahmad’s passion
FOOD, chuckles Halimah Asha’ari, the second granddaughter of the late Haji Ahmad Yaakub Al-Johori, has always been a binding factor that brought the family together. “Our family gatherings are always a food fest! We’d have laksa, biryani, soto, mee, rojak, roti jala... you name it. During grandfather’s time, I don’t recall it being as ‘festive’ but food, was always a fixture in many ways.”
Her childhood was spent shuttling between Pontian and Johor Baru. “Mother worked in Pontian but almost every weekend we’d head for JB where our grandparents lived. Whenever there were occasions that Tok (Haji Ahmad) had to do the catering, we’d all rush back with our mothers and join in to help. Tok had 16 children and my mother was his fourth daughter!”
Today, only three of his children are still alive.
Despite his passion for cooking and writing, Haji Ahmad, whose signature dish was biryani, was neither a trained chef nor had a catering business.
He was also not a writer. Says Halimah: “He was the Johor Religious Schools examiner. He was a high ranking government official with a penchant for cooking and, whenever there was a Johor Royal family wedding, he’d be called upon to cook the dinner. Tok would cook for thousands of people.”
Haji Ahmad had an insatiable hunger for acquiring new recipes that he could work his magic on. “No one actually knew where his passion came from but whenever he wanted to learn, he was ceaseless in his pursuit,” says Halimah with a smile.
“When Tok wanted to learn to make biryani, he sat in this Muslim restaurant in Singapore for a week. There, he also picked up skills to make korma, roti canai and other Indian dishes. Whenever he met a wak satay that made delicious satay, he never hesitated to ask how to make it. If he met a Chinese person who made tasty vegetable noodles, he’d sit with that person and learn to make the dish. He was very diligent in his research. He always asked around and refined everything once he got home. The recipes didn’t just come out of his own head. Later, he compiled everything he had learnt into a book.”
Every recipe in Medan Selera, adds Halimah, had been tried and tested by her grandfather. “If you follow his recipes down to a tee you’d be fine but the hard part is that his recipes are meant for a lot of people. So, if you’re just a small family, you need to tweak them. That’s what we have done.”
Tok’s wife and their grandma, Hajjah Jamaliah Omar, was also a good cook. “My grandmother’s favourite phrase when we asked her how to make something was always, ‘Ala... senang aje... sambil berak boleh buat! (It’s easy... you can even do it while you’re on the toilet!)’.
“Meanwhile, our grandfather’s favourite phrase was, “Buat lah... ikut resipi, insyallah sedap (Just do it... if you follow the recipe, you’ll be fine)’.”
She continues: “Tok had a huge kitchen. It wasn’t really a kitchen, more like a shed! It was at the back of his house and it was so long. There was a three-legged, round stove and there were all kinds of pots and pans. He had a long, wooden ladle, called a centong, which he used for stirring.”
Her grandfather, continues Halimah, was very particular about quality. “In the older version of Medan Selera, he even named the product brands that he used. He insisted on using only these brands to maintain quality.”
Despite their culinary acumen, the grandparents never taught their skills to anyone, says Halimah. “His children had to learn by themselves. They sat and observed whenever there was any cooking done. This was also how my own mum taught us. I don’t teach my kids to cook either. If they want to learn, they have to sit and watch or ask me.”
The only time she recalls being taught by her grandmother was making bawang goreng. “It was the only occasion that she actually asked me to help. She said that for it to turn out nice and crispy for a long time, we had to peel the shallots, wash and then dry them. Then only did we slice and fry in very hot oil. Once they’d turned golden in colour, lower the fire and scoop them out onto a plate covered with newspaper and leave to cool.”
What was her grandfather’s comfort food, I ask.
Halimah pauses and chuckles before replying: “A bowl of grapes eaten with Coca Cola. Whenever he wrote, he’d always have a bowl of grapes and bottle of Coke next to him!”