Azah Johari, 61, is an advocate of natural ingredients and uses the freshest ingredients in her cooking. The Kedahan who launched her YouTube cooking channel, Senduk kayu last year, tries her best to avoid ingredients modified ingredients from its natural form.Her fridge is well stocked with fresh produce, including coconut milk, grated coconut, herbs and vegetables, which she buys from her neighbourhood market. Boxed coconut milk, store-bought chilli paste, flavour enhancers and food colouring are a no-no in her kitchen.
“We live in Malaysia where fresh produce, including vegetables, meat and santan (coconut milk) are available in abundance. Instead of flavour enhancers, use natural ingredients like coconut water, screwpine leaves or lemon grass. Opt for natural food coloring like turmeric or pandan leaf extract, ” says Azah.
Magical yellow spice
Turmeric is an essential spice in Azah’s curries, spicy meat rendang and sambal.“The aroma of freshly pounded turmeric is pungent, with hints of ginger and orange. Fresh turmeric hues range from bright yellow to deep orange and it gives curries and sambals its distinctive colour, ” she explains.
A member of the ginger family, turmeric is native to southern Asia and is valued as a flavouring, dye and medicine. Fresh turmeric offers a citrusy aroma, and it harmonises well with other spices.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, this spice has been used in Indian Ayurverdic medicine, Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking, to flavour curries, fried vegetables and rice dishes.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia senior lecturer and nutritionist Dr Wong Jyh Eiin said turmeric is promoted as a ‘super food’ mainly due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, attributed to its main active component, curcumin.
“Curcumin is a yellow pigment which is present only in a small amount (2-5%) in the whole spice. Studies show that curcumin gives anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which may have a role in prevention and treatment of arthritis, hyperlipidemia, digestive disorders and inflammatory conditions, ” explains Dr Wong, who is the Nutrition Society of Malaysia’s assistant honorary secretary.
Research shows that this pigment is extensively used in traditional herbal medicines to cure many diseases associated with infection and inflammation for many decades. A 2020 research Curcumin: A Wonder Drug As A Preventive Measure for Covid-19 Management states curcumin could be used as supportive therapy in treating Covid-19 disease.
In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used for its antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic properties, and has long been used to deal with diabetes, pain, rheumatism, osteoarthritis, memory and skin conditions like eczema.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Azah has been consuming jamu kunyit asam regularly. Her homemade herbal concoction contains turmeric, tamarind juice, crushed peppercorn and palm sugar.
She believes the tonic will boost one’s immune system and maintain good health. It has been widely reported that Indonesian president Joko Widodo drinks a jamu, medicinal beverage, made of turmeric, ginger and lemongrass three times a day since the pandemic began to boost his immunity system and ward off Covid-19.
Azah makes her turmeric concoction with a reipe her Indonesian friend gave her 30 years ago. Turmeric roots are rinsed and then sliced. The skin isn’t peeled off as it also contains some medicinal properties.
“The turmeric is blended with a few peppercorns, and mixed with tamarind juice and sugar, then simmered over a slow fire. Peppercorns contain piperine, which helps to aid the absorption of curcumin in our blood. To retain its curcumin properties, do not boil it for over 15 minutes. Once the liquid is cooled down, she filters it and stores it in glass bottles.
The drink is sweetened to taste and can be drunk cold or hot. It is sour, bitter, sweet and spicy, with an earthy flavour and citrus overtones.
Fresh turmeric is also consumed by Malay, Peranakan, Indian and Kadazan women during the confinement period after giving birth. Eating raw turmeric is believed to rid the body of wind and improve circulation. After Azah delivered her four daughters, she consumed lots of ulam (traditional salads) and raw turmeric.
“During the 40-day confinement period, my mother made a special salad comprising sliced turmeric, turmeric flower, daun cekur (aromatic ginger leaves) and cekur roots. One of my aunts, who is of Indian origin, prepared a special turmeric tonic, to help my body fight infection and speed my recovery process.”
In the last 25 years, Azah has lived abroad in Africa, India, Thailand and the Middle East. Turmeric, she says, is also widely used in these countries, in marinades, curries and sauces.
“The cuisine varies, but turmeric is versatile and blends well with lemongrass, galangal, ginger and garlic. Turmeric is used in Thai green curry, and Capetown’s signature Cape Malay Curry. In Iran, the spice is used to marinate meats for kebabs and stews. I love the earthy fragrance of turmeric, ” says Azah, a former Biology and Chemistry teacher at SMK St Joseph, Miri. In 1991, she quit teaching to accompany her oil and gas consultant husband, Shah Shariff, on his postings abroad.
One of Azah’s favourite turmeric dishes is grilled tofu in turmeric and coconut milk. To make this simple one-pot vegan dish, Azah cooks coconut water and a paste made from blended turmeric and bird’s eye chilli. Pea eggplant, baby french beans, cherry tomatoes, and grilled tofu are then added to the dish. She then brings the mixture to a quick boil, and serves it piping hot with rice.
This healthy dish is bursting with flavour, imbued with the sweetness of coconut water and lifted by the fiery chillies. The mild and creamy coconut milk is the perfect base for its undertones of lemongrass and subtle hints of turmeric.
“It’s a protein-packed one-pot dish that’s simple enough to prepare. With a few fresh ingredients and some effort, anyone can whip up a simple wholesome meal in the comfort of home.”
There is no better way to stay safe at home than consuming healthy dishes to boost our immunity.
JAMU KUNYIT ASAM
600 ml water
20g palm sugar
20g tamarind pulp
1 tsp peppercorn, ground
100g fresh turmeric (sliced)
Blend fresh turmeric with 100ml water. Set aside.
Mix tamarind pulp with 50ml water to obtain tamarind juice. Set aside.
Add palm sugar, tamarind juice, ground peppercorn, blended turmeric and balance water in a pot.
Leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
Once cooled, strain it and store in glass bottles.
GRILLED TOFU COOKED IN SPICY COCONUT MILK
3 pieces of tofu, cut into squares and grilled
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup french beans
1/2 cup pea eggplant
50ml coconut water
400ml coconut milk
2 stalks lemon grass (white part only), bruised
10 bird eyes chillies
4 cm fresh turmeric
Salt to taste
To make chilli pasteAdd bird’s eye chillies and sliced turmeric in a blender.
Grind till it becomes a paste
How to makeIn a pot, add coconut water, lemongrass, and chilli paste. Leave to boil.
Add tofu, then cherry tomatoes, french beans, and pea eggplant and fresh coconut milk.
Leave to simmer till vegetables are cooked. Add salt to taste.
Remove from the heat and serve with rice.