Traditional dishes are in danger of being forgotten but Amanda Suriya Ariffin meets three women who have worked to keep them on the kitchen stove
FOOD is without a doubt a cultural marker and we commonly associate particular dishes with certain cultures. But, more importantly, how many of these recipes are being preserved?
Very often they become obsolete if they are not passed down the generations.
Below, three women talk about a dish that they feel is in danger of being forgotten.
Kamariah Hassan, 62, has spent most of her life taking care of her mother, although she is one of eight children. The dish called Mee Malaya brings memories of her family life in Johor.
The recipe was passed on to her from her late mother Safiah. As Kamariah extracts a yellowed and frayed hardcover notebook, she tells me, bemused at my curious peering: “Not everyone can make this dish, unlike the mee rebus or mee goreng.”
Sharing this dish is also a loving nod to her late mother’s legacy as the latter “used to make 15 types of mee dishes every Ramadan.” It is also a throwback to the time when Malay women used the measurement of kati, part of the Imperial system of measurement, which, to anyone born after 1970, would possibly mean nothing. It is the rough equivalent of 600 grammes.
A peek into Kamariah’s handwritten recipe notebook reveals the original recipe includes charming notations such as 15 sen of beansprouts or one kati of beef or noodles. “We would take the ingredients on guesswork, using our fingers,” she reminisces.
This was how women in the 1950s and ‘60s of the newly independent Malaysia bought their raw ingredients from the pasar then. The Chinese traders’ used the weighing apparatus known locally as the dacing (pronounced da-ching).
“Anyone aged 50 years or below won’t really know this dish,” chuckles Kamariah. It is unlikely we’d find it at an eatery, not since the ‘60s, anyway,” she hazards a guess.
So will this dish fade into oblivion if we didn’t have these handwritten recipe books. “I learnt how to make this when I was 19, but if I were not around, there are family members who know how to make this,” she says with a smile.
4 kati yellow mee (1 kati = 600g)
1 kati beef, sliced
Pureed red chilli mix
1 cup fried shallots
3 green chillies (thinly sliced for garnishing)
3 red chillies (thinly sliced for garnishing)
5 stalks of spring onion and Chinese parsley (daun sup), sliced for garnishing
1 cup of beansprouts
A bunch of mustard leaves (daun sawi)
600g fresh prawns, cleaned and de-veined
2 pieces tofu (cubed, fried separately for garnishing)
2 tins tomato puree
2 tbsp thick soy sauce
2 tbsp vinegar
2 large onions or 8 small shallots
8 garlic pips
15 black peppercorns, ground
1 tbsp white pepper
3 tbsp tomato sauce
1. Divide the beef into two portions.
2. Boil the first half of the beef until soft. Add white and black peppers, and the salt.
3. Garnish with parsley and the spring onion. Put in a serving bowl.
1. Heat up oil in the wok (kuali).
2. Blend the chillies and the garlic. Saute this mixture.
3. Add the remaining uncooked beef, cook until soft.
4. Add tomato puree and prawns and the three tablespoons of tomato sauce.
5. Then add the mustard leaves and saute. Subsequently, add noodles and lastly, beansprouts.
6. Put in a serving bowl or a platter. Garnish with spring onions and fried shallots before serving.
Homemaker Ramathunisa Sherfudeen, 58, decided she would teach her three daughters how to make the delicious South Indian snack called Kuli paniyaram so they in turn could pass the skill down the family line.
Not usually found in Malaysian Indian homes, Ramathunisa says that the dish is only found in Chettinad cuisine. Its preparation requires the use of a special pan. The pan, made with individual spaces for each kuli paniyaram, is available in some shops in Brickfields, says Ramathunisa, and looks very similar to the pan used in making kueh cara.
“Kuli paniyaram was made for special occasions like Deepavali,” she says. A part of the south Indian culture for over a century, the recipe is usually passed from mother to daughter.
Besides her daughter Rameesha (who admits it took her five or six tries before she perfected the method), Ramathunisa says that she has seen the snack served in a Chettinad eatery in Bangsar.
While it uses the same batter as that used for plain tosai and idli, kuli paniyaram was partly borne out of the lack of snacks years back, says Ramathunisa, who hails from Tamil Nadu.
4 cups of rice grains
1 cup split black gram (urad dhal)
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp salt
Filling: You can use a variety of fillings, such as palm sugar, syrup and coconut shavings or savoury fillings such as red and green chillies.
1. Soak the rice grains in water for an hour. Separately, soak the urad dhal and the fenugreek seeds for an hour.
2. Drain most of the water, keep a small portion of water aside.
3. Grind the soaked rice grains with fenugreek seeds using a blender, add the leftover water a bit at a time until the blend is neither too watery nor too thick. The resulting batter should not drip but should “fall off” the ladle in thick lumps.
4. Repeat the same process with the urad dhal and fenugreek seeds mixture .
5. Mix the the rice-fenugreek mixture and the urad dhal mixture together, and add salt. Stir this mixture continuously for 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Put aside this mixture to ferment for at least two hours at room temperature. The mixture should have risen by about an inch by this time. (If the mixture is too watery, it will not rise and if it is not watery enough, the resulting kuli paniyaram will be hard once cooked.)
7. Once ready, add half a teaspoon of oil to the kuli paniyaram pan, over a medium fire. Once the pan is hot, place one tablespoon of the batter in the pan, adding one teaspoon of the chosen filling (e.g. coconut mix) followed by another tablespoon of the batter. Once the bottom of the batter turns golden brown, flip the kuli paniyaram, (you can use a satay stick to do this), taking care not to puncture the kuli paniyaram or let the watery mix within spill.
TIP: Do not leave the batter to ferment for more than the allotted time as it may result in a sour taste.
Kan Siew Kim’s great-grandparents originated from China’s Fujian province. The 70-year-old became Mahani Abdullah when she married Ismail Sarajudin.
Making the bak chang, (chong tze in Mandarin), she feels, is a dying culinary art.
“Not everyone knows how to make this,” she laments softly. “It requires skill. I didn’t learn it from my mother but from an elderly Chinese woman in Kuantan, named Ah Fong,” she remembers with affection.
The word “chang” means small river, Mahani explains. Apparently this seasonal dish comes with a fantastic legend, based on a true story. Usually made during the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the story revolves around a high-ranking officer who jumped into a river when his King refused to follow his military advice. Eventually the kingdom suffered. As it is believed that another kingdom exists underwater, every year Chinese families would make bak chang and throw it into the river in the belief that the spirits would consume it and not the body of the officer.
Though there are savoury varieties, even vegetarian, for Mahani learning to make a halal bak chang was her contribution in helping to preserve this aspect of her Chinese heritage. “If you ask any Chinese Muslim,” she adds, “they’ll tell you it’s very hard to find halal bak chang.”
While she makes it only once a year for her three daughters and son, it is, surprisingly, her eldest grandchild, and only granddaughter, who recently learnt how to make this complicated dish. And together, they make up to 30 bak chang, taking hours in the preparation.
But it is an important tradition for Mahani’s family as she admits: “I was 40 years old when I finally learnt how to make this. My mother didn’t know how to make it, and it’s not something that is readily available. So as my family likes to eat it, it’s important to learn how to make it and to make sure someone learns from me too.”
2 kati sticky (glutinous) rice grains
(1 kati = 600g)
Raffia string or tali pisang
(string from the banana plant)
Shallots (finely sliced)
Garlic (finely sliced)
Dried Chinese mushrooms
Light and thick soy sauce
12 tbsp sugar
Salt to taste
TIP: For the filling, any meat can be used (eg. chicken but not seafood)
1. Soak the sticky rice grains overnight. Wash the dried oysters and soak overnight (to ensure all traces of sand are removed).
2. Soak the chestnuts in water for 10 minutes, then boil them over a small fire until they are almost soft and add the sugar to the pot, covering the chestnuts thoroughly. Once cooked, transfer the cooked chestnut mixture to a bowl and set aside.
3. Soak the mushrooms until they swell and remove the stalks after soaking.
4. Soak the dried chillies and dried prawns separately, until they’re soft, then blend.
5. Slice the mushrooms into three pieces. Saute the shallots and garlic in oil. Then add oysters and mushrooms. Then add meat, white pepper, light soy sauce, thick soy sauce (for colour) and saute till dry. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
6. Saute the dried chillies and dried prawns mixture in a pan. Once cooked, transfer it into a bowl.
7. Drain the water from the sticky rice grains. Saute the grains together with shallots in oil until the shallots turn golden brown. Add the fried shallots to the bowl containing the cooked mixture of mushrooms and oysters, while transferring the sticky rice to a separate bowl.
8. Soak the banana string and bamboo leaves overnight, wash and wipe dry with a clean cloth. Then take two bamboo leaves and place on top of each other.
9. Take one portion of the sticky rice, place on the leaves, add a portion of the mixture from all three bowls (mushrooms and oysters, prawns and chillies, chestnuts). Place a layer on top of the sticky rice, then add another portion of sticky rice on top of the filling.
10. Wrap the leaves tightly around the sticky rice and filling, tie tightly with a string, and boil for two hours. Once done, hang to dry.
TIP: Cooked bak chang can be kept in the fridge. Steam the bak chang before serving.