Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sampling in Satun 3 : The Nostalgic Nasi Lemak

One of the most iconic trademark dish of many countries in South East Asia is Nasi Lemak. It can be found in Malaysia, Indonesia, certain parts of the Philipines and even Southern Thailand. Nobody can really say much of its origin, but it was believed to be in existence hundreds of years ago.

Not many people can resist the temptation whenever the aroma of nasi lemak is in the air: the fragrant smell of rice boiled with screwpine leaf (daun pandan), ginger and coconut milk. In both Malaysia and Singapore, the customary accompaniment of nasi lemak will be sambal tumis with ikan bilis and a slice of hard-boiled egg. Sambal tumis is dried chili ground with onion and garlic to paste, fried in hot oil until fragrant, with tamarind and salt added to taste. The ikan bilis, or the Asian version of anchovies are deep fried until very crispy. In some versions, the anchovies and/or hard-boiled eggs are submerged into the sambal tumis. Depending on preference of the region, the sambal can be very hot or mild. Sometimes cucumber slices and fried peanuts are used for garnishing as well.

The traditional presentation of nasi lemak is by wrapping them in banana leaves for that additional aroma and enhanced flavor. Some hotels and restaurants still use banana leaves to line their plates when they serve nasi lemak. It was believed that the Chinese in Singapore or Malaysia (depending on who you listen to) expanded the list of accompaniment to the nasi lemak. Fried chicken, fried eggs, omelletes, kangkung, sausages and many more became additional accompaniment. Nowadays, most stalls and restaurants that sells nasi lemak have quite an expanded list of accompaniment. Even the readily wrapped nasi lemak has numerous main dish such as fish, beef and checken.

Certain kampung areas do not use coconut milk in their nasi lemak. The nasi lemak of the Indian Muslim in Kedah doesn't use coconut milk either. They usually fry onions with spices such as cardammon, cinnamon and others before adding them to the already washed rice with screpine leaves. In some cases, tumeric is also added.

Back in the mid-1970s, before I started schooling, I was living in Taman Sofiah in Jalan Kuala Kedah. There used to be an Indian man who carried a huge flat-bottomed rattan basket on his head coming around the housing area almost every morning. He sold kuih, along with nasi lemak and fried noodles wrapped in banana leaves. The Indian man never made it, he only collects the products from the people who made them and sells them. I remember fondly of the nasi lemak, the gravy (not sambal tumis), shrimp or a slice of hard-boiled eggs and long beans. Little did I know that, I'll be having a bite into deja-vu more than 30 years later.

On the second day in Satun, my wife and I headed to a restaurant located in a shophouse accross from the hotel (Sinkiat Thani Hotel) which we were staying. I was anxious to see what the Malays of Satun eat for breakfast, which I hopes was not sweet. The day before, I made an instant realization that none of the kuih sold by the Satun Malays are savory. Each of them are bitingly sweet.

To my delight, I was introduced to the shop-owner, a middle aged lady who goes by the name of Mak Piah, and she has been making nasi lemak for more than a decade. Like I mentioned before, the Satun Malay restaurant and eateries rarely sells varieties of food like what we have in Malaysia. Mak Piah sells nasi lemak, pulut ayam goreng (glutinous rice with fried chicken) and drinks. There are 2 major accompaniment to the nasi lemak: a mildly spiced fish curry and fried beef with long beans.

Mak Piah has a mixed Malay-Indian heritage, but her cooking is totally Malay. The nasi lemak is not too heavy on coconut milk, but the smell of giner is present although it doesn't overpower the rice. I did detect the absence of screwpine leaves although Mak Piaj said she uses them. She also added that sometimes they add cinnamon and/or cloves to the rice.

The fish curry is not the normal Indian-inluenced curry one might find in Malaysia. The spices are quite mild but balanced and they use more coconut milk in it. The closes resemblance to it would be the Ikan Tamban Curry popularly eaten with Nasi Dagang in the west coast, without the heat of the spices. The fish was meaty, and it tasted fresh.

There is no sambal tumis in sight. In fact, I realized that I have not seen any sambal tumis anywhere near the places I explored in Satun. The anchovies were there with the nasi lemak though. The curry is very mild, this might be a setback to those who love the extremely hot taste. Of course, true to the Thai influence, you can request sliced cili padi from Mak Piah.

The combination of nasi lemak with the fish curry brought me back to my childhood days. I realized that this is the nasi lemak that I used to enjoy 30 years back when I was younger. I never knew the reason why that particular nasi lemak disappeared totally from Alor Setar in the 1980s. Some people might find it strange to eat nasi lemak with a slightly watery fish curry, along with anchovies and fried beef with long beans. You can eat it with the fried chicken, but the population there might find it strange because they usually eat the chickens with pulut or glutinous rice.

My mum's friend really made her point when she told me on the previous day that, Satun's food reminds her of the Kedah food back in the 1960s. She might have to add 1970s to the list, although at that time, the nasi lemak with the curry might have already been a dying breed.

Mak Piah told me that the curry accompanying the nasi lemak is usually fish, although sometimes shrimp is used, but never beef or chicken.As I understand from my studies, the sambal tumis originated from the south of Malaysia, most probably Malacca (in theory), and just like every food in Malaysia, it travels everywhere. My mum remembers that there were 2 types of nasi lemak before the 1970s, one eaten with the same type of curry as above, and the other with sambal tumis. With the absence of sambal tumis from the Satun Malays' menu, I have to assume for the time being that they never got influenced by the southern Malaysia nasi lemak. Although food of any region will evolve and change in accordance to taste, preference and influence, I made a wish that this particular nasi lemak will remain unchanged.

I would really love to go back and enjoy the taste that I always remember from my childhood days.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sampling in Satun 2 : My Grand-uncle's Little Restaurant By The Highway

My mother told me of some wonderful cooking by my Grand-uncle every time she returns from Satun, and this time, on this trip, I get to see and taste what that was all about. His restaurant is located on the main highway that links Hatyai and Satun. I found out from our tour guide, or the van driver, that my Grand-uncle's restaurant is well known among the Malays of Satun and a popular stop by tourists. For those who are heading to Satun, ask to go to Restoran BangTuan, and they might just know where to head to.

My Grand-uncle, Tuan Mohammad, or Tuan Mat, is 45...although being only 3 years older than me, the family rank placed me as his grand-nephew. Fair and gentle looking, he spent the 1990s working in That restaurants across Malaysia before deciding to return to Satun and operate his own. The restaurant, like most Malay owned restaurant in Satun, is family owned. His wife and daughter and some relatives work there as well.

You can order your food from the menu, or you can have rice with already prepared dishes. I was also made to understand that he also makes noodle and fried rice dishes, but with what I was enjoying, I forgot all about it. Already prepared were the rice, Kari Merah Ikan Keli (Catfish in Red Curry), Kari Hijau Daging(Beef Green Curry), Asam Pedas Ikan Grukgruk (I have no way of translating that) and Daging Goreng Kacang Panjang (Fried Beef With Long Beans). We ordered 2 additional items:  my Grand-uncle's famous Sup Tulang (Beef bone Soup) and plain omelets.

On the subject of omelets, I was always intrigued with the way omelets are prepared in Thai food eateries. They seem to be perfectly done: crispy outside and really moist inside, and all my attempts at emulating that usually end up with either burnt, dry or uncooked inside. I did try to catch how they made it in Tuan Mat's kitchen. Surprisingly, it seemed as normal as I make it: eggs, a dash of fish sauce, stir it a bit, a generous coating of oil on a very hot wok. Strange that the oil seems to be smoking when he finally poured the eggs in, and the eggs never burnt. I guess that no matter how passionate your hobby might be at cooking, you still need to learn and practice.

As the tasting proceeds, my tongue exploded with fire and brimstone with the red curry. The spices are simple, but true to Thai influence, red cili padi was used. For those who can't get enough of cili padi in their diet, this will be a perfect dish for them. The fish was fresh and cooked to perfection. The shocker of it was when my Grand-uncle told me that he made the dish not as hot as it is supposed to be.

The green curry, on the other hand, was extremely mild. You can almost taste all the herbs and spices used in there. The beef was very tender, accompanied by the slightly bitterish taste of terung belanda. I'm not sure what terung belanda called in English though, it is usually mistaken as green peas in general.

The Asam Pedas is quite a pleasant surprise. It is as Malay as any asam pedas you might find, but with a twist. It is slightly hot, and the gravy is thicker. The Malaysian asam pedas usually uses Asam Keping or Asam Gelugor, but this Asam Pedas uses a lot of tamarind, or asam jawa. It's thicker and more sourish, but extremely pleasant to the stomach. The fish makes a perfect accompaniment to the dish.

Apart from the asam pedas, the fried beef with long beans is one of the most common dish one might find in Kedah, although not that many nowadays with the price of beef today. I remember fondly of my mum making it when I was much younger, and how it used to be in nasi campur stalls back then. Nowadays, the beef has been substituted with chicken liver or other bits to create the same dish. Tasting the fried beef with long beans really brought me to the past. The taste of the tender beef, opinions, soy-sauce and turmeric was very evident. Still, there is another twist to that, camouflaged among the long beans are slices of cili padi that might catch you by surprise. I must say that this dish is the only Kedah Malay dish that almost didn't evolve...if it weren't for the cili padi.

The piece de résistance has to be the Sup Tulang, or Beef Bone Soup. One might assume that being in Thai, it will have the smell of kaffir lime leaf, sourish with loads and loads of cili padi. Well, it doesn't. The meat was so tender and falling of the bones, with the cartilage almost melted. The taste is extremely well balanced: sweet, sour, hot and well salted. The broth is clear apart from bits of onions and cilantro. You won't find the "dusty" residue at the bottom of the bowl from the beef being boiled. I was told by Tuan Mat that the water must be boiling for quite some time first before putting any beef into it...I don't know whether that method really works, but I'll be trying it soon. The simple, clean yet rich flavors in the soup made it the only dish that everybody almost never stop eating.

To accompany our lunch, we had iced tea and coffee. Be warned, if you think your favorite mamak stall serves your drinks extra sweet, Restoran BangTuan tops that. Not to worry, there's always a jug of drinking water ready for diluting.

We spent almost 2 hours at the stall before finally leaving for the hotel. With food that simple and good, does it ever surprise anybody that we were back there again 2 days later, on the way back to Malaysia?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sampling In Satun - Kedah's Past Food History?

Satun is a town located in southern Thailand, about half an hour's drive from the border town of Wang Kelian, Perlis. One can be mistaken that Satun is a small sleepy town with nothing much to offer, but I found out that Satun has a lot to offer after my first ever visit there.

There was a time when Satun was part of Kedah. The name Satun is a Thai version of its original Malay name, Setul (santol, or wild mangosteen tree). Until 1813 Satun was then known as Mukim Setul. After that date it was administered by a governor sent from Nakhon Si Thammarat. In 1897 Satun became part of Monthon Saiburi (now Kedah), which in 1909 was divided between British Empire and Siam as part of Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. While most of Kedah was ceded to Britain, Satun was awarded to Siam because it had a relatively large Thai population. Satun was then incorporated into Monthon Phuket. The monthon system was ended in 1933, and Satun province became a first-level subdivision of Thailand. That's the British colonialists for you.

The province of Satun is located on the Malay Peninsula, on the shore of the Andaman Sea. It is separated from Songkhla Province by the Nakhon Si Thammarat mountain range, and from Malaysia by the Sankalakhiri mountains.

Almost 88% of Satun's populations are Malays. Because of the strict Thai education policy, many of the younger urban Malays cannot speak Malay. Lately, however, with the influx of Malaysian tourists that gives the country a potential economic boost and in keeping good relation with Malay/Muslim of Thailand, the government has introduced an elective class for Bahasa Melayu in their schools. Unlike the Malays of Yala, Nakhorn and Pattani, the Malays of Satun speaks more with a Northern Malaysian dialect, that's not surprising as Satun used to be part of Kedah.

In the past, the Malays of Satun used to enter Malaysia to look for employment, as laborers, servants and many more. However, today, the Malays of Satun are more keen in running small businesses. There are many eateries and foodstalls in Satun that are owned or run by the Malays. There is still a small population who still enters Malaysia looking for work, most of them in Langkawi.

The border town of Wang Kelian was the major start in our trip. With the consent of both governments, tourists are able to visit and shop within a 1km radius of Wang Kelian, and already I was attracted to the food which is sold there, along with other merchandise. There are a lot of Muslim stalls there, so, nothing much to worry.

At first glance, one can mistake Satun for a sleepy town with nothing much to offer. Cheap goods, great food, with a nice, quiet and peaceful setting, Satun will be a perfect choice for anybody who wants to relax and get away from the usual hustle-bustle of their daily lives.

I am not much of a Thai food lover, especially when it comes to load and load of cili padi, but to my surprise, Satun's region offers a more palatable delight to my stomach, of course, there are some exceptions.

Spending 3 days is just too short to sample every bit of what Satun has to offer. But in the short visit, I realized why many people who had visited Satun before, remarked that the Malay food of Satun is a reminiscence of what the Malays of Kedah used to have before the early 1970s. After sampling the food, I must say that the cooking is identical to the Malays of Kedah, but differs in many ways. They are usually simpler and finer. I visited my Grand-uncle's restaurant, a laksa stall, the weekly night market and several eating places, and I will write about the food there in up-coming articles.

Unlike the many integrated restaurants in Kedah, Penang and Perlis, where we have one coffee shop which is owned by a Chinese who makes drinks, a Mamak selling Roti Canai and a Malay selling nasi lemak or nasi campur, the Malays of Satun owns an eatery serving single or only 2 items, such as a shop that serves roti canai and drinks, or just nasi lemak and drinks. Interestingly, the shop houses in Satun town has the same architecture as the old shop houses you find in Kedah, Penang and Perlis.

I formed a simple theory that the Malays of Satun keep their food more traditionally after its separation from the state of Kedah. The only place that I found Malays selling foodstuff which is not Malay-oriented is the weekly night market. This is the reason why I am writing about food in Satun instead of the usual food of Kedah.

I will be writing more on the Malay/Muslim food of Satun soon, and maybe from there we can see whether my theory is on a right track, or tumble down the drain. After all those simple, but rich food, I need to detox.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Gearing Up For Ramadhan - With A Little Help

The school holidays are here, and it is now almost a month away from Ramadhan. As usual, this will be the time for me to prepare the shepherd pie, or Godam for my Ramadhan sales. However, due to tight work schedules, this year I made a change to my normal practice. Unlike the previous years where I spent night cooking and preparing Godam, this year, as it is the school holidays, I employed 2 of my nieces to help me.

Both girls are actually my wife's nieces, but as in the Syed family, everybody seems to be related in one way or the other, they became my nieces as well. They are Sharifah Nurliyana, 14 years of age, who is the 2nd daughter of my wife's elder brother; and the other is Sharifah Munirah, the eldest child of of my wife's younger twin brother. Despite having to drive all the way to Sungai Petani, I must say it was time, money and effort well invested.

I remember the nights spent making Godam: quiet except for the sound of television. This time around, the nights are noisy with their non-stop gossiping and giggling, and I must say that they are extremely enthusiastic about making Godam. They actually stayed up until 3:30 a.m. to finish them. Even my son was there helping them, only until his bedtime.

The task might sound simple, but as usual with our family recipes, it is not. I'm the only one who makes the filling. The girls will be peeling the potatos, boil them, and mash them with precisely measured ingredients. They pulled that off perfectly, I must say. Making the pie in its cup was carried out by them as well, as I usually get knocked out by 2:00 a.m., well, I'm not what I used to be, I guess. Unlike other teenaged nephews and nieces that I know, these 2 never complained or demanded to go anywhere, all they keep telling me is when will they be able to start producing the next batch.

They were there for 5 days, and despite having problems when the gas was out for almost 1 day, they managed to complete almost 500 pieces of Godam before they left. That's more than 6 kilos of beef, 10 kilos of onions, 30 kilos of potatos, and other seasonings.

I guess I finally found my admiration for these 2 hardworking nieces of mine. Even my son was enthusiastic in helping his cousins. I didn't even mind paying them extra. Anyway, I might need their services next year.

Erah and Yana; Ami, Bibi and Zulkif love you. Hopefully, the two of them will be back next year.