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Published: Saturday August 30, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday August 30, 2014 MYT 4:50:50 PM

Malaysian food for the ages

Age-old dishes: (clockwise from left) Fish Molee, Epok-epok, and Roti Ayam. - JANE F. RAGAVAN/The Star

Age-old dishes: (clockwise from left) Fish Molee, Epok-epok, and Roti Ayam. - JANE F. RAGAVAN/The Star

As we celebrate 57 years of independence, let’s remember a few of our lesser-known dishes that have, nevertheless, stood the test of time – but barely so.

Guinea pig curry – this was one of the dishes my mother remembers eating in 1957.

She was 16 and studying at a boarding school in Penang at the time, and these rodents – which were fed the core of the banana tree trunk – were bred specifically for food.

We may baulk at the thought, but with meat still a luxury item even a dozen years after World War II, underprivileged girls like my mother had to eat what they were served or go to bed hungry.

It wasn’t so bad, she says, and it seems guinea pig had something in common with every exotic meat, from alligator and snake to termites and snapping turtle: “It tastes like chicken!”

Thankfully, Malaysians did not develop a lasting love affair with guinea pig curry.

Even for families who could afford it, meats like beef, mutton and chicken were saved for once or twice a week and special occasions. Slivers of meat were usually added to impart fragrance to a dish.

(For an idea of how much meat cost in 1957, watch Bujang Lapok, which came out that year. P. Ramlee ordered a dozen “bifstek” [beef steaks] at a restaurant for himself, the girl he was dating and her 10 sisters, and the bill came to $38!)

A 1974 photo of belacan production in Penang. The shrimp paste is dried under the hot sun, a method still used today. – The Star filepic

Ellice Handy provided numerous meat recipes in her acclaimed 1952 cookbook My Favourite Recipes (reissued in 2012), but she often suggested the use of liver as a substitute. Nowadays, despite being nutrient-rich, liver is usually passed over for more expensive cuts of meat, which seems to have made it, and other offal meats, into a delicacy.

The use of belacan is also prevalent in Handy’s recipes. An educated guess would be that it was used as a substitute for salt.

Electricity had been available in Malaya since the turn of the century, and by the 50s, some households owned appliances like ovens.

Dr Ong Jin Teong, author of Penang Heritage Food, was 12 in 1957. His father worked in the electrical department of the municipal council in Penang and his family would try out new appliances as they were introduced. One of these was the early British-made Belling electric cookers.

However, many homes continued to use their low-tech traditional cooking paraphernalia, a subject Ong is researching for a new book.

Various traditional grinding tools exhibited at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum in Malacca. – BERNAMA photo

“Every home had a batu giling (grinding stone) and lesung (mortar and pestle), and many have been passed down through the generations, although it is much more convenient to use a blender or food processor today,” he says.

Some people may remember ice being sold in blocks packed in sawdust for insulation and bundled in newspaper. Ong recalls the tool used by ais kacang vendors.

“To shave ice, the vendors would use an object like a hand plane (for shaping wood in carpentry),” he says.

Another traditional tool that Ong finds interesting is the hand-cranked sugar cane juice extractor.

“It had two big rollers and was apparently inspired by a similar-looking machine used to roll rubber into sheets.

“Many of these sugar cane machines were operated by Sikh men. They probably had the strength (for the task),” Ong suggests.

Here are recipes for three dishes that were once popular – you find them in the recipe books of the time. The fish molee is still cooked in some Eurasian, Malayalee and Sri Lankan homes but outside of these, many Malaysians today have not even heard of it. Similarly, the roti ayam/babi can still be found in certain kopitiam and Peranakan homes, and epok-epok can be found down south in Johor, but becoming increasingly uncommon.

Other recipes:
Roti Ayam
Epok-Epok

Fish molee has Keralan origins. This coconut-based curry is mild and slightly sour.
Fish molee has Keralan origins. This coconut-based curry is mild and slightly sour.

Fish Molee

This dish, variously written as “moolie” or “moilee”, is a mild coconut milk-based curry which is said to have been brought over to Malaya by the Indians (particularly the Malayalees of Kerala; molee means stew in Malayalam) during the time of the British rule. The inclusion of vinegar, both as a souring agent and for preservation, could be a Portuguese influence.

500g firm-fleshed white fish, whole or steaks
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp lemon juice
salt to taste
oil for frying
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp garlic paste
½ tsp black pepper powder
2 sprigs curry leaves
½ cup thin coconut milk
2 green chillies and 1 red chilli
½ cup thick coconut milk
1-2 tsp white vinegar

If using whole fish, cut 2-3 gashes into the flesh on both sides. Wipe the fish dry and rub with turmeric powder, lemon juice and salt.

Heat enough oil in a large pan and fry the fish until golden brown, but still firm. Set aside.

Remove all but 2 tbsp oil from the pan and add mustard seeds. When they start to sputter, add onion and ginger. Saute until soft, then add the garlic, black pepper and curry leaves.

Pour in the thin coconut milk. Turn down the heat and return the fish to the pan. Cover and cook until fish is tender, 2-3 minutes.

Deseed the chillies and slice lengthwise into quarters leaving the stalk end intact. Add to the pan together with the thick coconut milk. Season with salt. When it comes to a simmer, stir in vinegar and take off the heat. Serves 4.

More recipes
Roti Ayam
Epok-epok

Tags / Keywords: Merdeka, Malaysian Independence, food, Spirit of 57, fish molee, epok epok, roti ayam, Malaysian heritage food

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