My paternal grandmother, Marjilah binti Yusof Kartomulya, fondly known as Tok Jilah, lived in Parit Bakar, a small village about eight kilometres from Muar. My grandfather, Andak Jamak, had passed away in 1936 when he was 61 years old and my father was then 20 and studying at Raffles College in Singapore. Her youngest daughter, Zaharah (Mak Chu) was only 12. Tok Jilah single-handedly raised her eight children on a pension of RM60 per month. Andak had retired as Inspector of Schools in 1930.
Tok Jilah did not receive any formal education, but she was able to read and write. She was known for her culinary skills in Parit Bakar, particularly for her laksa Johor.
Her laksa Johor was in a league of its own as everything was made from scratch – from the rice noodles to the curry paste, santan (coconut milk) and kerisik (toasted coconut paste). Thermomix, electric blenders, gas stoves, dried rice noodles and instant kerisik were unheard of those days.
Her kitchen equipment was the boh (rice grinder), gebok (noodle maker), batu giling (grinding stone), lesong (mortar and pestle), kukur kelapa (coconut scraper), kuali tembaga (brass wok) and for cooking she used firewood, arang (coal) and sabut (coconut coir). The cooking tools were heavy and usually made from granite or brass. All the heavy cooking was done at the rear of the kitchen, the bungsal, which had a roof and the natural earth as flooring, and sans fan the place was scorching hot.
Tok Jilah would always serve laksa Johor on Hari Raya. Laksa, in general, is a rice noodle dish in a spicy fish gravy. Each state in Malaysia has its distinctive version of laksa based on the type of noodle used, the gravy or soup base that makes the dish special, either a rich, savoury coconut milk gravy or a sour-tamarind-based soup and the choice of toppings and accompanying sambals. Penang has its laksa Penang where its fish gravy is thinner and has a spicy sour flavour. The Pahang variant of laksa is grey in colour and coconut milk is added to the fish gravy, accompanied by lots of belacan.
What was special about Tok Jilah’s laksa Johor was not only the gravy (kuah) but also the noodles. She was assisted by her faithful cook, Pak Hussein, a Chinese Muslim convert and her adopted daughter, Timah, an Indian Muslim convert. Johoreans used to eat laksa Johor with rice noodles but this had been replaced with either spaghetti or vermicelli.
During my research for my first book Johor Palate, Tanjung Puteri Recipes, I discovered that Sultan Abu Bakar who ruled Johor from 1862 – 1895 was an inveterate traveller, just like his Bugis forefathers. He made several overseas trips in order to broaden his experience and vision for Johor. During one of his trips to Italy, he acquired a penchant for spaghetti bolognese. On his return to Johor, he ordered the royal chef to use spaghetti instead of the usual rice noodles. After the British came to administer Johor in 1910, the supermarket franchise Cold Storage was set up to cater for the British palate, hence spaghetti was available for the Johorean market.
Tok Jilah, however, preferred to make her own noodles and not use spaghetti. She did not use instant rice flour. Instead, she would soak the rice overnight and then Timah would grind it the next day by hand using the old-fashioned boh. It would then be boiled and then placed in a brass container, called gebok. There are small holes at the bottom of the gebok while the surface of the inner bowl was ringed in a spiral design.
The gebok was placed on a strong metal platform and underneath it would be the container for the rice noodles. After placing the grounded rice inside the gebok, its head, which was like a screwdriver, would be pressed down. The head had a handle on top of it and when pressed down, strands of the white rice noodles would slowly ooze out, and fall into the container. When the production of the rice noodles was completed, Tok Jilah would portion it out into swirls in the shape of an “S” or knots. Johoreans refer to it as “cap”.
The preparation of the gravy itself was tedious and time-consuming and the sounds emanating from the bungsal reminded me of musicians in a mini orchestra tuning their instruments. Pak Hussein would firstly boil the ikan parang (wolf herring), fresh prawns, salted threadfin and dried shrimps, then debone and flake the cooked fish. Next, the fish stock would be strained, reserving the fish flakes to undergo a giling (grinding) process. He would then prepare the spice paste, curry paste, coconut milk and the kerisik.
I can still recall the sound of searing when the kerisik was placed in his kuali and the faint grating and drum-like pounding of the pestle and mortar in the background. All these sounds were music to my ears, and were accompanied by the ambrosial scent of fresh onions, ginger, herbs and spices. With all the tedious base preparations ready, Tok Jilah, like an orchestral conductor, then took the stage.
She would place a brass kuali on a stove made of bricks over a wood fire, heat some oil and tumis (sauté) the ground spice paste, curry paste, chilli paste, then add dried shrimps, salted threadfin and bruised lemongrass, stirring these until a fragrant aroma emanates and layer of oil appears. She then poured the reserved fish stock together with the ground fish flakes and prawns into the kuali, and then would carefully add fresh santan and herbs plucked from her garden (daun kesom and daun selasih).
One thing I observed was that Tok Jilah did not use any measurements. She would expertly campak (throw) the ingredients into the kuali and tambah (add) if she felt the consistency or taste was not right. She just main agak agak sahaja (approximation), stirring the kuali with her senduk (ladle), and tasting every now and then. Once she was satisfied with the taste and texture, she would finally put her senduk down. The gravy was then left to simmer, again until a layer of oil appeared on the surface signalling that the gravy had infused all the ingredients together, just like a perfect symphony.
Tok Jilah would place one “cap” of rice noodles on a plate, add the accompaniments – bean sprouts, large onions that had been peeled, quartered and finely sliced, cucumbers that had been peeled and finely sliced, pickled radish, finely chopped daun kesom and daun selasih and a final dash of sambal belacan – and pour over a ladle-full of piping hot gravy.
What a feast for the eyes and the palate – a medley of colours and textures, richness from the gravy, crunchiness from the bean sprouts, onions and cucumbers and that umami flavour from the sambal belacan. Simply heavenly!
I remember Tok Jilah with so much fondness. She was a true laksa Johor maestro and our beloved matriarch. She lived to the ripe age of 92 and passed away at my father’s house in Kuala Lumpur, in 1975.
Note: Laksa Johor was gazetted as traditional food (makanan warisan) under the National Heritage Act 2005 (Act 645) by the Department of National Heritage Malaysia in 2009. The traditional recipe is in the book I co-authored with Hamidah Abdul Hamid, Malaysia’s Culinary Heritage: The Best of Authentic Traditional Recipes. A simpler version of Laksa Johor by Ungku Balkis Ungku Abdul Hamid is in my latest cookbook Recipes Are For Sharing.