Culinary Inspirations: My Bugis food heritage

Burasak is the Bugis version of lontong, nasi himpit or ketupat. – Photos: KALSOM TAIB

My father, Taib bin Andak, is of Bugis and Javanese descent. Andak’s father, Jamak bin Majok bin Menatah came from Wajo in the island of Sulawasi to the Malay Peninsular after the fall of Makassar to the Dutch in the 19 th century.

After many years of unregulated trading, the Bugis faced restrictions in their trading activities imposed by the formalisation of trade rules set by the Dutch. Many tried to avoid the formal trade routes controlled by the Dutch but the situation became onerous.

In the end, a great number of Bugis, including Jamak’s family left their homeland and migrated to various places in the Malay Peninsula. Jamak settled in Parit Bakar, a small village about eight kilometres from Muar, Johor.

He married Aminah bt Derima @ Dirwa, also of Bugis descent and a descendent of Raja Chempa and Daeng Pabita. They had nine children, six boys andthree girls. Andak was their third son, born in 1875 in Parit Bakar. Andak married Marjilah (Tok Jilah) bt Yusof Kartomulya, who was of Javanese descent. They had nine children, three boys and six girls and my father was their sixth child, who was born in 1916.

Although Andak was born into relatively wealthy circumstances, being a landowner and with a small rubber estate in Parit Bakar, he led a simple lifestyle. His life centred around his work and bringing up his family. He passed away in 1936 at the age of 61 when my father was 20 years old and a student at Raffles College.

Andak is sitting in the centre with his three daughters in front and eldest son Hamidon, sitting on extreme left with Mak Chu on his lap. This photo was  taken in 1927 in front of Andak’s house in Parit Bakar.Andak is sitting in the centre with his three daughters in front and eldest son Hamidon, sitting on extreme left with Mak Chu on his lap. This photo was taken in 1927 in front of Andak’s house in Parit Bakar.

Tok Jilah was well known in Parit Bakar for her culinary skills, particularly for Bugis and Javanese cuisine, sometimes modified with elements or ingredients which were locally sourced or which matched local preferences. She is famed for her square-shaped kuih kepal, a sweetmeat made from glutinous rice, palm sugar and coconut milk, somewhat similar to dodol but grainier. This kuih originated from the Bugis who called it didorok cengkoruk. This is one of the Bugis’s traditional kuih and served during special occasions.

Tok Jilah may have learnt it from one of her husband’s relatives. This was my father’s favourite kuih and one of my fondest memories were of Tok Jilah serving my father and I her kuih kepal which she stored in a recycled Jacob’s cream crackers’ tin stowed under her bed. In the olden days, precious items such as gold or jewellery were stored under our beds, and I guess for my father and his mother, it was the treasured kuih kepal.

I wanted to include a kuih kepal recipe in our first cookbook initiative, Johor Palate, Tanjung Puteri Recipes in 2014, but my father’s youngest sister, Mak Chu, had never made it before and our search eventually led us to Johor Bahru where we were introduced to Sharifah Rogayah Syed Abdullah, who not only shared the kuih kepal recipe but generously showed us her techniques as well.

Another popular Bugis kuih in the Tok Jilah household is tarumbah. To make tarumbah, Tok Jilah would sit on a stool in front of a pot of cooking oil placed on a kerosene burner.

A mixture of flour, eggs and water is prepared to make a pliable dough, which is then inserted into a cookie press, and pushed and cut through a star shaped nozzle into a pot of hot oil. The piping hot tarumbah is removed from the oil once they turned golden, then dipped into a pot of melted sugar or syrup.

Other popular Bugis kuih include didorok kalukku bakak (dodol kelapa bakar), made from flour, sugar and grated coconut, cooked over a slow fire. When cooked, the mixture is placed in a plastic sheet and flatten, sprinkled with caster sugar, then rolled, and sliced into small pieces, like a sweet.

Junebak (kuih talam direndam dengan air gula) is similar to bubur som som. Cicuruk is made from combining rice flour, flour, palm sugar and water, to form a dough. Spoonfuls of the dough are dropped into hot oil and fried.

There are several Bugis kuih that are quite similar to Malay kuih, like Bugis telas bangkok which is quite similar to our kuih koci and seri kaja lawo (seri kaya labu or egg custard in pumpkin).

Another well-known Bugis kuih is bangkit Pontianak which resembles biscuits. But unlike traditional crispy biscuits, these are soft and are popularly served during kenduri. The Bugis are also known for their dodol varieties, made using different ingredients – pineapple (dodol nanas), kacang dal (antakasukkma), kelapa parut (didorok kalakku bakak) and ubi kayu (dodorok lame aju).

For Hari Raya, the Bugis would serve either burasak, lepat loi or lepek-leppek. Burasak is the Bugis version of lontong, nasi himpit or ketupat. Lepat loi is similar to our ketupat daun palas, made from glutinous rice and coconut milk which is boiled and then filled into a special wooden mould in the shape of a rectangular prism, lined with young banana leaves. The rice is then removed and six pieces are then wrapped on a mature banana leaf and then tied tightly with raffia to prevent water seeping through the rice. They are then immersed in water and boiled for two to three hours.

There are many popular Bugis kuih that the columnist loves. There are many popular Bugis kuih that the columnist loves.

Leppek-leppek, is made from glutinous rice wrapped in coconut shoots (pucuk daun kelapa), then immersed in water and boiled for one to two hours.

Burasak, lepat loi and leppek leppek are eaten with ikan singgang asam (nasu metti), serunding kelapa udang (bejabok), ayam masak lemak (nasu likuk) and chicken in soya sauce, Bugis style (ayam kicap Bugis.).

My father loved ikan singgang asam which Tok Jilah cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire and left to simmer on a very low flame. It is a very simple dish to make as very few ingredients are used – chilli puree, belacan, tamarind paste, gula Melaka, salt and water are all mixed together, strained and cooked until the gravy thickens. Then the fish is added. It is ready when the gravy turns deep red. My father loved to eat it with lempeng kelapa (coconut pancake), fried yam and roti canai. Before eating, my father would crush the green chillies with his fingers and add it into the gravy.

For breakfast, the Bugis would serve nasi ketan (pulut) which is boiled with coconut milk (like nasi lemak) or grilled or boiled singkong/lame aju (ubi kayu), served with a variety of dishes. The Bugis used a lot of santan and kerisik in their dishes and one of their popular dishes is urang gore kalukku (udang goreng masak santan); the ingredients are 500g prawns, 1 cup kerisik, 500ml coconut cream, shallots, garlic and galangal.

At a very early age I was already exposed to the food of my ancestors, tok nenek moyang – Bugis and Javanese food. What I remembered most was that we always ate together – meals were always eaten sitting down on the ambin (platform) which was near the kitchen. There was no dining table and chairs in Tok Jilah’s house. I also remember that during festive or other occasions, such as kenduri (feast), several Bugis and Javanese dishes would be served. It was usually served communal style on a large round tray lined with banana leaves and four or five people would sit around the tray and share the dishes.

Rice was placed in the centre and the various lauk would be placed around it. Mealtime would be a time for us to gather and engage, with so much laughter and fun as we scuffle to grab our favourite chicken drumstick or wing before others and quickly grab the last piece of kuih. Those were times which truly fostered the spirit of togetherness amongst the members of the family.

The recipes of some of the mentioned dishes are in my book, Johor Palate, Tanjung Puteri Recipes.

Datin Kalsom Taib is an award winning cookbook author and publisher. The opinions expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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