Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Traditional Breakfast

There was a time when traditional Malay dishes of Kedah, especially breakfast, was out of style. People went more for roti canai, or the all-rounder nasi lemak, However, I am glad to see that dishes like Peknga and even Pukut Ikan Masin is gaining momentum commercially.

Pulut ikan masin was consumed a lot by Malays of yesteryears, but is not a dish originally from Kedah. It is glutinous rice with freshly grated coconut and friend or roasted salted fish. This is a dish most commonly taken by those who labours in the field or sea, such as paddy farmers and fishermen. It is a simple dish compared to rice, and able to last.

Peknga is synonymous with Kedah, or the north. Originally known as Roti Kisot, it is a basic bread dish eaten with fish curry. This is truly a dish that was borne out of necessity and the abundance of resources.

The Malays used to have an abundance supply of coconuts in their kampung, which is why coconut or coconut products, are always present in so many Malay dishes. Ikan kembong was the cheapest source of protein at the time. Beef was expensive, and chicken is a labor-intensive job, furthermore, fish curry was always made in a large quantity where they feed their large families. As there was no refrigeration back then, they had to device a way to finish off the curry the next day. For this, Roti Kisot or Peknga with Fish Curry is able to feed all, using resources they already have to finish off the dish they already have. Simple, economical and satisfying.

On the name, nobody can really say how the name Peknga was devised, but a popular legend has it that it is short for TemPEK dalam BelaNGA (stick it on the pan/gridle). The original name, however, is based on the act of making it: Roti is bread, Kisot is moving around while kneeling/on your knees. It is said that Malay ladies move around on their knees a lot to make this bread as the old traditional wood-coal stove is low and closer to the ground. With the name Peknga getting more commercial, roti kisot has found its name to be a bit more obscure and only known to older generations.

Since I was young, I remember my mother making Roti Kisot for breakfast, with the leftover fish curry from the night before. I cannot talk about today's generations but a lot of my friends in the northern region will talk about their mothers making their best roti kisot/peknga experience.

Unlike the normal bread, Peknga is not made from dough but from batter and basically has young, grated coconut or bananas as the main flavor. The flour is usually combined with water and seasoned to a consistency slightly stiffer than pancake batter, then adding the grated coconut or mashed banana.

Making it on the pan or gridle can be tricky. From personal experience, try not to use a non-stick pan or you might find the work frustrating. The batter is ladled on to the griddle and spread to the desired size with even thickness. Too thick, you might find the peknga batter uncooked inside, too thin and you end up with a crispy dry crust.

A good peknga dish must satisfy both aspects: a good tasty bread and a good fish curry, usually ikan kembong or Atlantic Mackerel. I have been to a few places that serves peknga but usually end up disappointed. Majority of them have good curry but the peknga hardly has the taste of young, grated coconut. I could have sworn one of the places used husk of grated coconut...that place I will never return. One place had a peknga that was perfect in texture, but sweet. Not surprising as they are Pattani Malays.

With all these letdowns, I rarely order Peknga anywhere. However, my friend recommended me Warung Klasik, where traditional Malay breakfast is served, and I was made to understand that place, which is next to his house, was given a slot on Majalah 3 and now very popular. Despite the fact that I avoid mainstream/upmarket places, curiousity got the best of me and I actually had a good experience there.

Finding the place was quite tricky. Located on the Jalan Alor Setar - Kangar, the restaurant is located by the roadside, on the left from Alor Setar and on the right from Perlis. It is about 5km from the traffic junction of Jalan Putra/Lencong Barat/Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah, and about 1.5km from the Kuala Sungai town. The stall is located by the road, with a small signboard stating its name. It's a bit tricky as there are no landmarks for me to describe.

The restaurant is open from morning to afternoon, serving dishes like Peknga, Pulut Ikan Masin alon with rice and its dishes for those who preder something heavy.

There are 2 types of peknga, the regular or banana, with fish curry for you to dip the bread. For the curry, you can just have the curry, or you can have it with fish, depending on how you like it. The peknga is slightly smaller in size, but think and well cooked - crispy on the outsude, soft on the inside. With the young grated coconut in there, you can eat the peknga on its own. The fish curry is light, which is a typical kampung Malay style, that goes perfectly with the peknga. The curry is not spicy hot, just nice. Mind you, don't be fooled by the size, minutes after eating it, you might find the peknha expanding in your stomach.

The pulut is nice as well. The glutinous rice was well cooked and steamed, with young grated coconut and salted tamban (or something similar) hot off the wok. I am guessing that, not only these dishes were made with care, the young grated coconut plays an important role as well. It gives a rich, sweet and slightly salty taste and texture to the peknga and the pulut dishes. Rice with other dishes are also available there, but I didn't try as it was too early to go for rice. I am confident, however, that the dishes are nice as well as I noticed that most of the dishes were almost gone.

I am glad to see how traditional Malay dishes are becoming popular again. At one time, these type of food were considered by some Malays to be "of low class" and non-commercial. The restaurant, despite its small size, has been packed since early morning, and this is proof that people long  for this type of food. Compared to other places which prefer to take shortcuts in preparing these dishes, such as skimping on the coconut, adding more water to the curry than required, cooking without steaming the pulut, being cheap with ingredients and many other tardiness, this restaurant shows that they are serious in preparing the traditional Malay breakfast of Kedah, an effort I most applaud. I do not mind paying extra for something like this, but the price is already reasonable.

I hope they will preserve the quality of the dishes and will be around for a long time.