YM Ungku Balkis Ungku Abdul Hamid is the picture of elegance and poise – her perfect comportment never wavering, even though everything around her is pure chaos.
She is in the home of her younger sister YM Ungku Murhamah, better known as Shireen – a house she pops into frequently as this is where her mother, 81-year-old family matriarch Esah Ahmad typically stays.
Shireen’s family home is a busy hive of activity – she has five young children who dart in and out of the kitchen, their eyes and hands perpetually wandering to the dining table, which has been heaped with all the family’s favourite Hari Raya meals.
“Pleease can I have some of this?” begs 11-year-old Mohd Ian Shafiq, pointing in the direction of Balkis’ signature cempedak kek lapis. Although he has been promised some after lunch, he returns repeatedly to try his luck until Balkis finally relents and lets him have a small piece before his meal. He leaves, a satisfied smile on his face.
In Balkis’ family, every Hari Raya involves a large gathering that includes her family (she has four children), Shireen’s family and their three other siblings’ families, so this level of hubbub is par for the course during the festive season.
“We have a family WhatsApp group and one week before Hari Raya, we will all say what we are making for the day, including the nephews and nieces, so there are always loads of people and a lot of food, ” says Balkis, laughing.
Born in Johor, Balkis and her family are members of the Johor royal family who moved to the Klang Valley in the 1970s. But their passion for heritage Johor food has never wavered, inspired at least in part by the indomitable Esah’s talent for cooking these meals.
“My mother was a great cook in her time. Every Hari Raya, she would be cooking all day – she wouldn’t even sleep! Now she just enjoys eating the food that we make. But I learnt nearly all my traditional Johor recipes from her, ” says Balkis.
Over the years, Balkis has perfected her recipe range, and makes some of her mother’s dishes exceptionally well, none more so than her laksa Johor, which is a firm family favourite (and a state staple) during Hari Raya.
While the noodles in laksa Johor were once made out of home-spun rice flour (laksa beras), in most modern incarnations, it is typically composed of spaghetti – reputedly a result of 19th century Johor ruler Sultan Abu Bakar’s predilection for the pasta – which gave way to this popular iteration of the dish.
The spaghetti is layered with a rich, thick gravy (kuah laksa) made up of fresh fish like ikan parang (wolf herring) dried shrimps, coconut milk and curry powder as well as aromatics like ginger, lemongrass, garlic and onions.
The meal is topped with a range of greens and garnishes in the ilk of cucumber, bean sprouts, mint leaves, Thai basil, sambal belacan and lime. Curiously, the laksa is meant to be eaten using only hands as implements.
Balkis’ laksa gravy is thick, rich and flavourful with a memorable aquatic underbelly and a fresh, invigorating quality that is instantly bewitching. All the other cast of characters – from the spaghetti to the garnishes add crunch, zest and verve to the meal, which is likely one of the best homemade laksa Johor renditions out there.
Over the years, Balkis has tried teaching her sisters and nieces how to make her laksa Johor but the verdict has been unanimous: no one else’s version has ever come close to hers.
“Even though I have given the same recipe to my sisters and nieces, they don’t get it right. And the thing is, I have even sat next to them when they cooked and said, ‘Put this much of this ingredient’ but it’s never the same. That’s why everyone in my family always comes back for my laksa Johor on Hari Raya, ” says Balkis, smiling.
Another Raya stalwart dish is the family’s opor ayam, a nearly 100-year-old Johor-centric heirloom recipe that Esah inherited from her own mother and has since passed down to her children.
“I learnt it from my elders and then I showed my children how to make it. I want them to continue making it because not a lot of people know how to make opor ayam now, ” says the chirpy Esah, with a twinkle in her eyes.
Opor ayam reputedly has its roots in Indonesia and is a meal that purportedly has ties to the Indian merchants who traversed the Nusantara region. The spices and cooking methods introduced by the merchants were eventually extrapolated and innovated, resulting in meals like opor ayam and its cousin opor daging, both of which quite often have kurma powder (or fresh kurma ingredients) as its core component.
In Johor, people of Indonesian origin who travelled from central Java and settled in Johor were likely to have introduced this dish to the state, although it has become quite difficult to find in recent years.
“When my children were younger, we had so many people coming to our house for Hari Raya, so I used to cook up to 20 chickens to make this dish. Now we just make it at home for Raya with the family and my children love it so much that they like to eat it on its own, just as it is, ” says Esah proudly.
Esah’s opor ayam (which Balkis now makes every year) features tender chicken coated in a thick gravy that is redolent of coconut milk, kerisik, kurma powder, spices and aromatics all melding fluidly together to create rich, tropical notes with hints of the flavour nuances of the Indian sub-continent.
For Balkis’ family, Hari Raya simply wouldn’t be complete without her kek lapis (layer cake), something that deviates from Johor food but that she learnt how to make herself as her family has such a proclivity for sweet treats.
Originally thought to be from Indonesia, kek lapis has acquired new life in Sarawak, where talented bakers have transformed the basic cake into thrilling creations featuring geometric patterns in all kinds of hues.
Making even the simplest version of the cake (striped layers) requires determination, as the constant layering during the baking process (every five minutes or so) can be quite exhausting.
Although Balkis sticks to simple striped layers for her kek lapis, her flavour range is where she really experiments, with kek lapis variants that include chocolate, Nutella and even durian! But it is perhaps her cempedak kek lapis (jackfruit layer cake) that is truly outstanding – a lightly sweet affair that features buttery, dense cake with the distinct flavours of jackfruit running riot throughout.
“For my kek lapis, I only use good quality butter and a lot of eggs to get the consistency right. And for the jackfruit filling, I make it from scratch using fresh jackfruit, ” she says with pride.
Although Hari Raya this year is likely to be a quieter affair, given the rules and regulations surrounding the Covid-19 global pandemic, Balkis still hopes to be able to make her signature dishes for at least some of her family members.
“It is such satisfaction when you cook for your family and everyone enjoys it so much that there is not even enough and they are like, ‘Oh, dah habis? How I wish I can have this!’ That’s why I like to cook so much, ” says Balkis, smiling.
1kg ikan parang (wolf herring)
4 red onions
10 cloves garlic
3 stalks lemongrass
5 tbsp cili boh (dried chilli paste)
150g dried shrimp, soaked
50g fish curry powder
500ml coconut milk
150g kerisik (toasted, pounded grated coconut)
4 to 5 pcs tamarind slices
sugar and salt to taste
For the condiments
onions, peeled and finely sliced
cucumber, peeled, cut into rolls and finely sliced
Thai basil leaves, chopped
Vietnamese mint leaves, chopped
bean sprouts, blanched
sambal belacan, as required
Calamansi limes, halved
Boil the fish until cooked. Debone the fish and blend till fine.
Blend the onions, garlic, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, dried chilli paste and dried shrimp.
In a pot, add some oil and sauté the blended paste and curry powder on low heat. Once fragrant, add in the blended fish and stir to combine.
Add in the coconut milk and kerisik and stir well. Add tamarind slices, sugar and salt to taste. Keep stirring and add water at this stage.
Let mixture simmer on low heat for 1-2 hours until oil appears on the surface and colour is orangey-brown and the texture of the gravy is quite thick. Remove from heat.
In a pot, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Plunge into cold water. Take a handful of pasta strands, and make a knot.
Serve 1 to 2 knots of spaghetti on a plate along with the gravy. Place the condiments on top with a dash of sambal belacan and a squeeze of lime for an extra zesty taste.
1 whole chicken, quartered
2 red onions
5 cloves garlic
2 stalks lemongrass
1 cup cooking oil
125g kurma powder
100g briyani powder
250g kerisik (toasted, pounded grated coconut)
400ml coconut milk
sugar and salt to taste
In a pan, fry chicken until half cooked. Set aside.
Grind onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and candlenuts.
In a large pan, add oil and fry ground ingredients until aromatic. Add cloves and cardamom and fry for a short while. Add kurma powder, briyani powder and kerisik and stir well to combine.
After 5 minutes, add coconut milk and salt and sugar to taste and stir well to combine.
Then put chicken in and leave to simmer on low heat for another 20 to 30 minutes until chicken is cooked through.
KEK LAPIS CEMPEDAK
For the cempedak puree
600 grams of cempedak, cored
220 grams caster sugar
220 ml of water
For beating together in stand mixer
500g butter (SCS)
4 tbsp condensed milk
1 tsp cempedak essence (optional)
1 tsp vanilla essence
(Beat all of the ingredients using high speed)
For adding to stand mixer
20 egg yolks
5 egg whites
270 gram caster sugar
1 tbsp ovalette
For the flour mixture
120 g Hong Kong/Top flour
250 gram milk powder
150 gram cempedak puree
To make the cempedak puree
Mix all ingredients and blend until smooth. Cook briefly over low heat until thickened stir continuously)
To make the kek lapis
Beat the butter, condensed milk, cempedak essence and vanilla essence in a stand mixer on high speed. Set aside.
Using a clean bowl, beat the eggs, caster sugar, ovalette in a stand mixer using high speed until fluffy and thick. Add the butter mixture into the egg batter and stir well.
Add sifted flour and milk powder little by little until fully absorbed. Then add cempedak puree and stir well until immersed into mixture.
Grease an 8” x 8” pan and pre-heat oven to 170C.
Put half cup of batter for the first layer and bake it using upper and lower heat for about 5 minutes to 7 minutes. Pour another half cup of batter into the pan and bake the second layer using the upper heat for about 5 to 7 minutes. Bake the rest of the layers using the same method.
Once done, bake the last layer using lower heat for 10 minutes and temperature between 130°C to 140°C.