Singaporean author Bryan Koh remembers distinctly the first Kelantanese meal he had in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur two years ago.
“It’s alchemy: rice noodles, coconutty fish gravy untouched by spice, a frisson of herbs. The fish and coconut really come through in the white sauce, and I love how the ulam sharpens and enhances it, rather than drowning it.
“It was a sparkling little experience,” relates Koh, who had until then only known mostly the food of the Malaysian west coast from his mother who was from Penang and his grandmother who was from Ipoh.
The delicious laksam meal set more than just his taste buds tingling. It also led Koh to his third book on food culture in this region. He had written Milk Pigs and Violet Gold: Philippine Cookery in 2014, which won the Best Food Book Award at the Philippine National Book Awards that year.
His second book, 0451 Mornings Are For Mont Hin Gar: Burmese Food Stories, won third place in the Best Asian Cookbook category at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2016.
Koh who lives in Singapore and co-owns cake companies Chalk Farm and Milk Moons there, studied Mathematics but veered into food journalism.
Koh was curious to explore Kelantan food after a ‘sparkling’ meal in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.
“Food writing was something that happened spontaneously during my time in university. I was a freelance journalist and wrote travel and food columns. I gradually grew to love writing about food and developed a knack for it,” says Koh.
He has been cooking since he was six; “from a very young age, food has been my lens onto the world”.
“Every sensation, every texture, scent, flavour, is but a tile of a mosaic that I want as lavish and expansive as possible. For many, a dish is a coordinate that connects us to a particular place and time, to a certain group of people and their history.
“It’s an instinctive process that can be overwhelming and by putting it down in words, I feel I am making sense of it, reinforcing what I know and my relationship with a cuisine – if that does not sound too pretentious – and honouring it,” says Koh who embarked on two years of eating, research and writing on the cuisine of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.
He began with Kelantan, travelling there “in the name of research, in the spirit of adventure”.
On one of his trips, he visited Besut in Terengganu and realised that the state shared many dishes with Kelantan. And so Terengganu entered the equation.
A year after that, he included Pahang after realising how little has been written about its food.
He started out by conducting preliminary research on the subject as there is scant documentation on the foods from these parts.
“My research involved establishing contacts and interviewing them. I was lucky to have some of these contacts take me around their hometowns.
“They were proud of their cuisine – and rightfully so – and knew that I was keen to learn and eat as much as possible! They were awfully generous with their time and were not at all cagey about sharing what they knew of their food, including those from their childhood,” shares Koh. Some of these contacts include renowned artist Chan Fee Ming who lives in Kuala Terengganu and designer Tino Soon of the now defunct Salabianca label.
Bekwoh is testament to Koh’s curiosity and fascination with the cuisine of the east coast. Its title is from the Kelantanese lingo that means big feast, which Koh chose to capture the lavishness and big-heartedness of the region’s food. (Click the link for a review.)
Koh’s essays which introduces each chapter not only take readers on an exciting – and possibly exotic – journey, but also informs and educates on the local food culture.
They are a compelling mixture of anecdotes, experiences and observations. More importantly, they document the local food wisdom and knowledge which Koh strengthens with his research.
The essay entitled “Kampung Cina”, for instance, is on the Peranakan community in Kelantan and Terengganu, which are not so well-known outside of their states.
- Gulai lengkuas kunyit
- Belebat ubi stelo
Exciting flavour combinations
As much as he delights in the local lingo and names of the food, Koh also takes care to include basic information and generic or scientific terms so that the content is accessible to a wide audience. Then there is the injection of his humour here and there, from wryly surrendering to a copious amount of rice to calling roti jala Simpson-yellow.
Koh explores beyond the familiarity of nasi dagang and ayam percik. He writes about local ingredients such as sare, a Kelantanese seaweed that you have to soak and dry till it turns from black to white, and Terengganu’s dipping sauce, colek, and Pahang’s papaya rojak, gonyok.
“I find the flavour combinations really exciting. Fenugreek seeds and slivered ginger are often slipped into many coconut-based dishes, sweet or savoury. The ozone salinity of the sare (red algae) against the spice and tang of the sambal tumis for kerabu sare is spectacular. I also love the perfumed sourness of singgang against the fire supplied by sambals of pounded chilli and mango,” says Koh.
He is most partial to torch ginger, bunga kantan and ulam rajah.
“I adore manisan nira – it is deep, velvety and smouldering and yet shimmering and fresh on the palate.
“I actually like tempoyak. I grew up splashing bagoong (a fermented fish condiment from the Philippines) on chopped tomatoes and salted eggs to eat with rice, so I have a fondness for budu, too,” adds Koh, whose openness to exploring local ingredients is reflected in his collection of recipes.
Koh also has an extensive chapter on kuih muih, with recipes he has interpreted to make them more accessible to people outside the region and culture.
- Bekang berkuah
- Kerabu sotong kering
Breakfast in Kelantan
“Actually, I’m not a trained baker. I’m not even a trained cook. I am self-taught. Kuih is not difficult to make, but it can be tedious (the extracting of pandan juice and coconut milk, the washing, soaking and steaming of glutinous rice) and tricky (making sure you have steamers with the right-sized perforations or the right kind of rice flour).
“And as most kuehs involve a certain alchemy whereby very few ingredients are transformed into something quite extraordinary, every little detail counts. Shortcuts and bottled essences often don’t work out too brilliantly.”
Through Bekwoh, Koh hopes to present something “memorable and potent”. As with his other books, the message is also that every state (region/country) has something wonderful to offer.
“In Singapore most of us do not think beyond Penang, Melaka, KL or Ipoh when it comes to eating. Sometimes it takes more work to find, but when you do, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
In many ways, calling a cookbook Feast: Food Of The Islamic World is rather unusual. Cookbooks are often clustered under cuisine types – Italian or Indian or Chinese or Persian, rather than by religion. And the reason for this is simple: sharing the same faith does not necessarily mean you share the same food.
But with her latest cookbook, author Anissa Helou set out with a firm idea in mind.
“I wanted to give a positive image of Islam given how vilified both the religion and the people practising it were becoming following the rise of Isis in some countries. I thought that writing about the food culture of majority Muslim countries and the history of the religion through the lens of food would be an accessible way to make people view Islam and Muslims in a more appealing way,” she says in an e-mail interview.
Anissa is a seasoned cookbook author who grew up in Beirut (her father is Syrian and her mother Lebanese), before moving to London in her 20s. She has worked at Sotheby’s and at one point was even an art adviser to the Kuwaiti royal family, offering input on Islamic art.
In 1992, she switched trajectory after realising that many Lebanese people displaced by the country’s civil war had lost touch with their culinary roots. This spurred her to put together and publish her first cookbook Lebanese Cuisine in 1994, which was shortlisted for the Andre Simon award.
Anissa Helou hopes Feast will cast a positive light on Islam and Muslims around the world. Photos: Kristin Perers
Anissa has since gone on to publish many cookbooks, including Street Cafe Morocco, Mediterranean Street Food and Levant: Recipes and Memories From The Middle East.
Feast took Anissa three years to research, write and do the recipe-testing. The result is a 530-page mammoth tome featuring over 300 meticulously curated, well-researched recipes from Islamic regions around the globe.
Anissa’s strength is in weaving fascinating tales around the meals featured in the book. Many recipes are prefaced with her own personal experiences of eating them – stories like meeting with the great-great grandson of the last ruler of Lucknow to understand the history of Calcutta biryani (they use potatoes in the dish) and going on a culinary tour in UAE with the ruler’s daughter, offer unforgettable glimpses and rich tales of the longstanding cultural values that hold many cuisines together.
These narratives are interspersed with recipes that provide more factual or historical information – like how the Lebanese caraway pudding is made in plentiful quantities when a baby is born. There is an easy mix of realism and fairytale whimsy stirred in the cauldron here, and the resultant hodgepodge is incredibly easy to digest and makes for fascinating reading.
“I like to place recipes in a context, be it historical, social or simply anecdotal. It makes them more appealing to both the person who just wants to read them and the cook who would like to cook them, offering a richer culinary experience,” she says.
Feast offers a massive repository of food from Islamic countries, with over 300 recipes, all of which Anissa has personally tested.
Researching the book took Anissa through many countries and regions – in the book, she talks about choosing a baby camel to make roasted camel hump (yes, it’s a thing!) in Dubai, learning how to make the perfect dumpukht biryani from a noblewoman in Hyderabad and eating klepon (onde onde) in a friend’s home in Indonesia. Although she hasn’t made it to Malaysia yet, Anissa says that’s on her wishlist. “I would like to get
to know and taste Malaysian food,” she says.
Anissa says there were some places that she felt she couldn’t travel to by herself for safety reasons, like Afghanistan, Syria and Mali but otherwise her travels were dotted with a rich tapestry of experiences.
“I travelled during Ramadan to different countries, and in Cairo, Egypt, I discovered what they call Ma’idat al-Rahman (in Arabic meaning the meal of the one who takes pity), where rich patrons pay for iftar meals that are laid out right in the street for poor people who cannot afford to buy much food. All these experiences were fascinating,” she says.
Although the book is so expansive that it will take you many days to fully digest the recipes here, Anissa says she actually had to leave many recipes out and if she had her way, she would have liked to have produced three volumes of the cookbook so that she could fit all the recipes in!
“The reason to leave out many recipes is that the book would have been far too large and possibly not so well balanced. I chose what I consider to be a good balance of classics, personal favourites and little known or little covered dishes,” she says.
Anissa Helou learnt to make Qatari chicken and rice from Qatars best known celebrity chef Aisha al-Tamimi.
So you’ll find recipes for all sorts of delicious-sounding dishes, some that may be familiar to you (harissa, sambal terasi, Turkish kebabs, tabbouleh and baklava) and many that will be totally foreign – quail tagine with sweet potatoes, Berber meat bread, Indian Scotch eggs and shanklish salad.
There is also a spiritual slant running through the core of this book. In chapter introductions and some recipe prefaces, you’ll find plenty of information about Islamic history – from its birth through to its dissemination to many parts of the world.
If you’re a non-Muslim (and even if you’re a Muslim) this makes for engrossing reading as you’ll discover all sorts of information about Islamic culinary influences, like the lucrative Arabian spice trade, the pistachio and olive oil famed in Aleppo, and even the narrative behind the first Arab cookbook – the Kitab al-Tabikh, which depicted recipes from the court of ninth-century Baghdad.
It is an eye-opening world view, one that we don’t always get a glimpse into, written in an engaging, non-didactic way that makes it all the more appealing. It is also clearly part of Anissa’s master plan to engage and perhaps more pertinently – enhance – the global understanding of Islam and by extension, the food eaten by the people who practise the religion.
“I wanted to show a positive image of Islam and Muslims and plant a desire to find out more about the culture, history and life in the various countries I covered and beyond,” she says.
INDIAN SCOTCH EGG
For the nargisi kebabs
6 organic eggs
600g boneless lean lamb shoulder or leg, cut into small pieces
1 small piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced to a fine paste
1¼ tsp garam masala
1¼ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder (a hot chilli powder)
½ tsp finely ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground turmeric
4 small green chillies, seeded and coarsely chopped
a handful of cilantro leaves
a few fresh mint leaves
2 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more to oil your hands
For the curry sauce
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 large onions (600g total), finely chopped
1 small piece ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced to a fine paste
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
½ tsp finely ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground turmeric
6 medium tomatoes (600g total), processed to a fine purée (or an equal amount of canned peeled whole tomatoes)
12 cashews or 20 blanched almonds, soaked for 1 hour in hot water, then drained and processed until finely ground
vegetable oil, for deepfrying
a few sprigs of cilantro, most of the stems discarded, finely chopped, for garnish
To make the kebabs
Put the eggs in a pan full of water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Take off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes, then discard the hot water, let the eggs cool, and peel them.
Process the lamb in a food processor until finely ground. Add the ginger, garlic, spices, chillies, herbs, breadcrumbs, oil, and salt to taste and process until very finely ground. Transfer to a bowl and divide into 6 equal portions.
Put a little oil in a bowl, which you will use to oil your hands to shape the kebabs. Lightly oil your hands, then flatten one portion of the meat mixture into a medium thin round that is large enough to wrap around a hard-boiled egg.
Place the egg in the middle of the meat patty and wrap the meat around the egg. Smooth the seams and place on a plate.
Make the other kebabs in the same way and refrigerate until it is time to fry them.
To make the curry sauce
Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the onions and when they start sizzling, reduce the heat to low and sauté until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and spices and stir for a minute or so. Add the puréed tomatoes and let bubble for about 10 minutes, or until you see the oil rise to the surface. Add the ground nuts and a little water if the sauce is too thick and salt to taste. Stir for a couple of minutes.
Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. Pour 6cm vegetable oil into a deep skillet and heat over medium heat until very hot (if you drop a piece of bread in the oil, the oil should immediately bubble around it).
Working in batches of 1 or 2, drop the kebabs into the oil and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning them so that they crisp up and colour evenly. Remove with a slotted spoon to the rack to drain the excess oil. At this point you can either serve them plain, or with the curry sauce on the side, or you can drop them into the sauce and let them cook in the sauce for a couple of minutes before serving them garnished with the chopped cilantro.
LAMB TAGINE WITH POTATOES & PEAS
Serves 4 to 6
4 lamb shanks (1.5kg total)
2 medium onions (300g total), halved and cut into thin wedges
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp finely ground black pepper
good pinch of saffron threads
¼ cup (60ml) extra virgin olive oil
50g bunch flat-leaf parsley, most of the bottom stems discarded, finely chopped
50g bunch cilantro, most of the bottom stems discarded, finely chopped
500g new potatoes, scrubbed clean and left whole if very small or halved if medium
250g fresh or thawed frozen petits pois (small green peas)
Put the shanks, onions, garlic, spices, and a little salt in a large pot. Add water to barely cover, about 4 cups (1 litre) and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the oil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
Turn the shanks over in the sauce and cook for another 15 minutes. Turn the meat again and cook for another 15 minutes, or until the meat is tender. If the shanks are not tender after an hour, cook for 15 to 30 minutes longer, adding a little more water.
When the meat is tender, add the herbs (reserving a little cilantro for garnish) and potatoes and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are just done. Add the peas and cook uncovered for another few minutes, until the peas are cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If the sauce is still runny, let it bubble hard uncovered until the sauce has thickened.
Transfer the meat and vegetables to a serving dish. Garnish with the reserved cilantro and serve very hot with Moroccan bread.