"What do you want to eat when you come home?" In the 21 years that I’ve been living away from Kuala Lumpur, the city I grew up in, this has always been my mother’s first priority as the date of my return draws closer. "Where do I start?" is often my response.
Anyone who has visited Malaysia will understand the challenge at hand. Malaysia lives and breathes food 24/7 quite literally. Food stalls (and even restaurants) operate around the clock; markets burst with tropical produce in eye-popping colours; the country’s melting pot simmers with Malay, Chinese, Peranakan (a blend of Chinese and Malay cuisines), Indian and Eurasian flavours; and the locals consider eating a national sport. Then, of course, there is the fact that my mother is an extraordinary cook.
Now, I know many people say this about their mothers, but I can’t begin to describe how exhilarating it is to watch Mum in her element. Her culinary fervour starts at the markets, an outing which ideally takes place as early in the morning as possible to snare the best produce. She insists on visiting very specific stalls for certain ingredients, sniffs curry leaves like a beagle, examines lady’s fingers (okra) with a fine-tooth comb, and lifts the gills of each gleaming Spanish mackerel that lies on the crushed ice before giving the fishmonger the thumbs-up.
At home, after bringing in the spices that have been drying in the sun and meticulously sorting her shopping, the surgical mise en place begins. The food processor starts revving and the pungent aromas of garlic, onion, lemongrass, galangal and belachan (dried shrimp paste) swells through the house. Mum then starts what she calls tumis (the frying) of the fiery spice paste for 20 minutes before she will even contemplate adding the other ingredients.
"You must be patient," she’ll say to me as she stands over an enormous kuali (wok) with its choking fumes in the heat of the 30-degree kitchen. And this would only be the start of a single dish. Dinner, the main meal of the day for our family of four, was always an elaborate banquet of four or five overflowing dishes served with rice. "There’s enough to feed an army!" Dad would exclaim at each meal on cue, as if Mum would do any different.
On my lists of home-cooked cravings, there tends to be an eclectic mix of Peranakan and Tamil dishes; essentially the food of my parents’ heritage. Mum, with her Chinese-Burmese-Sicilian-German ancestry, is the epitome of her childhood home, Melaka, a state south-east of Kuala Lumpur, renowned for its trading history and blend of Asian and European cultures.
Meanwhile, my father, whose parents immigrated from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, grew up in the heart of KL, with his mother cooking only traditional Tamil dishes. Fortunately for Dad, (and every other guest who scores an invitation to my mother’s table), Mum taught herself how to cook the food of Dad’s childhood over the years, excelling in the cuisine up to the point that he proudly declares that she could surpass any Tamil cook – and I, too, welcome this culinary challenge.
While Mum is a woman of grace and poise, she admits to being a rambunctious tomboy as a child, riding water buffalos, climbing trees and torturing geckos with her handmade slingshot in the plantation estate where she spent her early years. Being in the kitchen was the last place she wanted to be, but domestic duties and social expectations required her to start her culinary training, which she did at the relatively late age of 12. Lessons began with cooking rice and frying eggs, then progressed to the Peranakan staple, sambal belachan, and graduated to dishes such as masak lemak nangka (jackfruit coconut curry) and babi pongteh (braised pork with fermented soy beans; see Mum’s recipe, page 115). However, in those days of course, there was no such thing as quickly whizzing up spice pastes in a food processor; instead it was a labour-intensive two-step process of manual pounding using a batu gilling (flat granite stone), followed by a batu lesong (mortar and pestle). Mum’s family didn’t own a fridge until the mid-1960s, so everything was bought fresh as required, a practice that, where possible, she continues today.
Thankfully for us, Mum still re-creates plenty of these complex dishes that, while easier with modern technology, still involve extensive shopping and preparation. You only need to taste her masak garam assam (tamarind fish curry), fragrant with daun kesom (laksa leaves, known here as Vietnamese mint), bunga kantan (torch ginger buds), lemongrass and galangal, to understand this.
Like many who cook by instinct, measuring is unthinkable for Mum; instead it’s all about agak agak, or estimating. Similar to many of its South-East Asian culinary cousins, Peranakan food is also about the balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy, a verdict that is entirely subjective, so the skill to agak is integral to the cuisine.
While Mum came from a family of four, Dad was the youngest of seven siblings. He lived in a modest, two-bedroom house with his parents and his brothers and sisters in an area that today is sprawling with towering luxury apartments. I’ll always remember the day he took my brother and me to see the vacant land before it was bulldozed. He said that the bomb shelter where his family and neighbours retreated during the air raids of the Japanese occupation was probably still underground.
In those trying times, Dad’s mother had the challenge of feeding this large family with the little they could afford. "She tried very hard to make a balanced meal," says Dad. 'There would be a little bit of rice, some vegetables and a little protein – maybe fish, chicken or eggs. She had to stretch out the food for all of us, so she’d chop the meat finely and turn the bones into kulambu [gravy]. And there was always something new; she was very creative."
Breakfast was an important meal and Dad’s mother insisted on filling the bellies of her children with substantial (and delicious) dishes like thosai (paper-thin fermented rice and dhal pancakes), idli (steamed rice cakes), puttu (ground rice and coconut steamed in bamboo) and idiyappam (rice noodles, also known as string hoppers). "My mother would wake up at four in the morning to grind rice for the thosai batter and as we’d wake up around six, she’d serve us breakfast, two at a time – partly because of her production line, but also because of the limited space," explains Dad.
Everything was divided fairly, although Dad admits that his mother insisted on being the last to eat, thereby often left with the meagre scraps; such was her devotion to her children. Sweets or desserts were reserved only for special occasions. Dad recalls tasting payasam for the first time at the age of five at his eldest sister’s wedding. Traditionally, this dish comprises coconut milk, rice vermicelli, sultanas and cashew nuts, but given the cost of the latter two ingredients during World War II, these were omitted at the wedding.
The celebration of Deepavali (Diwali) involved three weeks of preparation as neighbours tried to outdo each other at creating the various spiced snacks, from murukku (fried urad dhal coils) to omapodi (chickpea-flour noodles), whereas, these days, most Malaysians simply buy these snacks. 'It was the only time of the year when we got new clothes," says Dad. "My mother would also make a special breakfast – maybe idiyappam with sothi (spiced coconut milk; see my mum’s version, page 115) and, for a real treat, mutton. She’d finely chop the liver and make a stir-fry with curry leaves."
With her mixed heritage, Mum celebrated many festivals, including both Chinese New Year and Christmas. The former involved a banquet of perhaps Nyonya chicken curry, chap chye (mixed vegetables) and itek tim (duck with salted mustard greens and sour plums), while sweets ran the gamut from kuih kapit (folded wafers, more commonly known as 'love letters’) to kuih bangkit (coconut tapioca biscuits). Christmas also involved curries; 'We’d make a chicken kroma, which is basically a Malay korma curry, but the Nyonyas call it kroma," explains Mum alluding to the Peranakans’ creole dialect of Malay.
There were also other Chinese events on the calendar, such as the dumpling festival, when my grandmother would tightly wrap bamboo leaves around pyramids of glutinous rice stuffed with pork and chestnuts, which she’d then boil to make bak chang. Pork, poultry, prawns and cockles predominantly featured in Mum’s diet, whereas for Dad, whose mother was Hindu, beef and pork were unchartered meats until he was 16, while crustaceans and molluscs were no-go zones. 'My mother just believed that seafood wasn’t good for us," shrugs Dad.
Perhaps one of the reasons was food safety, which, to this day my father is a stickler about (much to my and my mother’s disappointment when we want to hit the street stalls). 'It’s amazing no one in my family ever had food poisoning in those years of widespread typhoid and cholera," remarks Dad. 'I think it was because of my mother’s meticulous Hindu practices of washing everything. We also never ate raw food. I remember when Parth and Tharma [my uncles] went to Singapore for the first time and discovered salad – I was horrified!"
Another thing that used to horrify my father was Mum’s recollection of eating ice balls from a street vendor. These icy treats that Mum would devour after school are without a doubt her fondest childhood food memory. 'I called the ice-ball man acik, which means 'uncle’ in Hokkien. He’d shave half a bowl of ice, add boiled red beans and sweetcorn, top it up with more ice, mould it into a ball in his hands and then pour over rose syrup and gula Melaka (palm sugar). I’d hold the ice ball and suck it with the syrup dripping from my fingers!" recalls Mum with glee.
Today, when ais kacang – the closest equivalent of Mum’s ice balls – is on the menu, she can’t resist ordering it (see our recipe for ais kacang on page 95). During a visit to Melaka, Mum’s brother introduced us to one of his haunts, Jonker 88, on the historical thoroughfare of Jonker Street for Mum’s icy fix. The menu lists a variety of cool desserts, but Mum settled for the 'EPC’ (Eight Precious Chendol), an embellished version of the pandanus mung-bean noodle dessert, bejewelled with red beans, sweetcorn, crystallised ginger, preserved mango, jellies and jackfruit, and slathered with fresh coconut milk and the thick dark palm sugar that Melaka is so famous for.
My mother didn’t utter a word throughout eating it; much the same way I too become mute when tucking in to one of her heavenly, home-cooked meals. And as the Christmas holidays and another trip to Malaysia beckons, I know it’s time to start thinking about my culinary wish-list.
It won’t be like Mum’s cooking, but here are a few food haunts to enjoy similar flavours.
Restoran Kanna Curry House
The drawcard at this iconic eatery is the banana-leaf rice. Take your pick of curries – including mutton, chicken and fish – then dig in using your fingers, scooping up a little bit of rice and pickles with each mouthful. Down a teh tarik (pulled tea) and fold the banana leaf towards you when you’re done. 29 Jalan 17/45, Petaling Jaya (near Rothmans roundabout).
Choose from the wide selection of marinated fish for the deep-fryer and don’t miss the famous fluffy roti canai at this KL establishment. 27 Jalan Chantek, Petaling Jaya.
Lotus Family Restaurant
Enjoy similar southern Indian flavours as Raju’s at this air-conditioned diner, where among the highlights, are crab curry, fish cutlets and spiced vegetable stir-fries. 15 Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya.
Brickfields (KL’s ‘Little India’)
Take in the kaleidoscope of marigolds, saris and tropical produce, then visit Saravanaa Bhavan (196 Jalan Tun Sambanthan), a global vegetarian restaurant chain from Chennai, to enjoy Tamil favourites like thosai and idli in a variety of flavours.
Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine
You may recognise owner Amy Koh from the Melaka episode of Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, which featured her and her famous chef-cousin Florence Tan cooking Peranakan classics. Try traditional dishes such as water spinach and cabbage in spiced coconut milk, and chicken with Indonesian black nuts. 75 Jalan Melaka Raya 24.
Chai Chai Heng
My mother makes an annual pilgrimage to this family-run store to stock up on belachan, gula Melaka and cincalok (fermented krill), which she combines with eschalots, chillies and plenty of lime juice, and serves as a condiment with fried fish.In the evenings, you can buy the Melakan delicacy, oh chien (oyster omelette). 177 JalanTun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street).
Grab a table at this popular eatery in a historical shop-house adorned with Nyonya antiques and retro knick-knacks, and order pie tee (pastry shells filled with shredded turnip), baba laksa (rice vermicelli, tofu and prawns in a spiced coconut broth), and one of their fantastic icy treats to finish. 88 Jalan Hang Jebat (Jonker Street).
Photography by John Laurie.