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.

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