Culinary inspirations: Ummi’s harissa legacy

The combination of savoury harissa and sweet honey may be unusual but it’s delicious. Photos: KALSOM TAIB

Just before Hari Raya this year, my sister-in-law, Junita, asked me where I get my supply of homemade harissa. Ju was not referring to harissa, the hot chilli pepper paste native to Tunisia, which is an essential ingredient in every Tunisian kitchen.

She was referring to the harissa, an Arabic-inspired dish popularly served during Hari Raya in Johorean homes, and of course, is one of the Tok Mat family’s firm favourites.

Images of my uncles taking turns to stir a huge kuali loaded with a mixture of brown paste over a wood fire, flashed in my mind. To this date, harissa remains a “must-have” Raya dish served at home.

What is so wonderful about harissa, you may ask? To the uninitiated, the sight of the dish may not look so appealing.

I remember my husband Shafee’s reaction when he was served harissa for the first time at my parents’ Raya Open House, shortly after our wedding ceremony.

Shafee took one look at this suspicious looking brown pulp which I had plated with a spoonful of sambal garam lada (sambal without belacan) at the side, then proceeded to drizzle some honey and squeeze half a lime before serving him.

It was obvious from my face that I was pleased with my plating skills but he looked aghast – shock horror – and was puzzled by the combination of this questionable concoction. After assuring him that despite the harissa looking like uncooked fish paste, it is actually a delicious meat dish and the “combo” works extremely well in pleasing the palate. Shafee was converted into a harissa fan that very same day and requests for extra helpings each Raya.

Kalsom’s great grandmother Fatimah binti Buang, or Ummi, could have brought the harissa dish from her time living in the middle east. Kalsom’s great grandmother Fatimah binti Buang, or Ummi, could have brought the harissa dish from her time living in the middle east.

Harissa is an Arabic dish. The word ‘harissa’ comes from the Arabic verb which literally means ‘to crush’, ‘to grind’ or ‘to puree’, and was initially used to describe a porridge of pounded oats or wheat, mixed with mutton, ghee and a variety of spices, and the harissa origins date back to the seventh century.

Once all the main ingredients are added, harissa is stirred for hours over a fire until the mixture thickens. Its consistency varies between a thick porridge and a gruel.

I often wondered how harissa, which is unfamiliar to the average Malay palate, made its way to Tok Mat’s home. I surmise that there could be three possibilities:

Firstly, the Arab traders could have introduced harissa to Johorians – in fact, the name Johor originated from the Arabic word jauhar, which means gems or jewel, the term used by Arab traders in the thirteenth century when Johor was famous for its jewels and gemstones.

The Arabs also played an important role in Johor Bahru and Muar’s history as traders and in promoting religious education.

In Muar, they established an enclave in Arab Street. There is an Arab community in Kampung Wadi Hana in Johor Bahru. The Arabs brought with them several dishes – and harissa could be one of them.

Secondly, harissa could also have been brought by my paternal great grandmother, Fatimah Buang, fondly known as Ummi. After her marriage to Orang Kaya Tahir and the birth of their son, Ahmad (Tok Mat) in Kampung Gelam, Singapore, the young Ummi accompanied her husband to Mecca in 1896. It was there that Ummi learnt to speak fluent Arabic and studied various religious disciplines from teachers in the Holy Land. She was also excellent in preparing Arabic cuisine and was very attuned to their culture. Upon the death of her husband, she returned home in 1910 and stayed with Tok Mat, who had, by then, moved to Muar. She passed away peacefully at Tok Mat’s house in 1952.

I remember her well as I was living with Tok Mat from the time I was born until 1949. It is quite possible that Ummi could have introduced harissa to our family. I found the harissa recipe in my mother’s recipe book written in Jawi script and Ummi may have given her the recipe.

She had prepared my mother for married life and guided her in the art of cooking. My mother had shared with me that she would show the food ingredients to Ummi prior to cooking and she would then painstakingly write them down.

Thirdly, Ummi could had acquired the recipe from her sister, Aishah Buang, who was married to Dato Abdullah Ja’afar, the son of Dato Ja’afar Mohamed, Johor’s first Menteri Besar. Dato Ja’afar’s house, Bukit Senyum, was well known for its exotic dishes and for promoting and perfecting new and different kinds of food to the people of Johor. He had not only an Indian chef but a Turkish chef as well. The Turkish chef could have introduced harissa.

In fact, their family recipe has been passed down from one generation to another, starting from Dato Ja’afar’s daughter, Azizah.

Azizah was well known for her cooking prowess, having learnt the art from her Turkish mother, Rogayah (Khanum) Abdullah, and from the cooks employed by her father to work at Bukit Senyum.

Ask any member of the Tok Mat family and they will tell you that a passion for harissa is the hallmark of a true Johorean gourmet. Shafee will attest to that, even though he is from Penang. Even my niece, Melina Mahmood, who lives in Milton Keynes, UK, and who is married to Briton, Nigel Lowrie, has exposed her three children, Aiesha, Sophia and Khaliq, to harissa. Melina is not only an excellent cook, she innovates by cooking Malaysian dishes with limited ingredients and using up leftovers.

In a Facebook posting she made on 30 March 2023, she transformed leftover frozen oxtail soup into harissa by adding spices and oats. She had to kacau sampai bulat, resulting in oxtail harissa. She has even converted leftover brisket into serunding. My late brother Mahmood would be so proud of her.

It is difficult to find harissa nowadays as it is tedious to make, requiring a lot of patience, effort, time and energy. We are very fortunate that there are two members of our family, Zainal Mansor and Hassan Mohamed, who have continued the harissa-making tradition. Both Zainal and Hassan are the great grandsons of Dato Ja’afar Mohamed and make harissa all year long.

Harissa was one of the dishes served at the Johor Food Promotion held recently at the Impiana KLCC Hotel and many of the guests were amused at the strange combination of eating a savoury dish with honey and sambal garam lada. The chef decided to be creative - he shaped the harissa into small squares, dipped them in beaten egg and pan fried them in melted ghee, with honey and sambal garam lada on the side. Heavenly! The harissa recipe here is in Johor Palate, Tanjung Puteri Recipes. I am sharing the recipe in this column for those who have the patience, strength, energy and endurance to give it a try.

Datin Kalsom Taib has co-written and published award winning books on Malay cooking and Malaysian cuisine. The views expressed here are entirely her own.


500g ghee

1 bulb garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

15 shallots, peeled and sliced

For the stock

3 kg beef, lamb or chicken

2 bulbs garlic, peeled and grated

12 cm ginger, peeled and grated

6 large onions, peeled and cut into wedges

5 soup spice sachets

4 litres water

1.5 kg instant oats

180g briyani spice mix

6 tbsp pepper

salt to taste

4 tbsp green cardamoms, crushed, seeded and ground fine

Heat the ghee in a pan and fry the sliced garlic and shallots separately until brown and crisp. Drain on a paper towel. When cool, store in separate airtight containers.

Boil the beef, lamb or chicken with all the ingredients in a solid brass pot until tender.

Take out the meat, shred it finely and return it to the pot. If chicken is used, debone and shred its meat.

Liquidise the oats with the stock and add to the pot. Remove the soup spice sachets and add any excess stock to the pot.

Place the pot back on the stove and slowly boil, stirring all the time. When the oats start to thicken, add the briyani spice mix, pepper and salt. Further boil over medium to low heat, constantly stirring and scraping the sides of the pot.

When the mixture thickens, reduce the heat to its lowest and add spoonfuls of leftover ghee from frying the garlic to coagulate the mixture.

Sprinkle in the pounded cardamoms and mix thoroughly before removing the pot from the heat.

Scoop the mixture onto a serving dish and use a little ghee to smoothen the surface of the harissa. Arrange the fried garlic and shallots on the surface. Make a dent in the centre and pour in some of the leftover ghee used for frying the garlic.

Serve with honey, sambal garam lada and a squeeze of key lime juice.

Sambal garam lada

Grind 7 red chillies, 1 clove garlic and a pinch of salt to a fine paste.

Note: A solid brass pot has to be used as the heat has to be distributed evenly and slowly to prevent burning.

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