In his daughter’s sparkling kitchen, Rusli Kamaruddin, 65, is hard at work, his face a rictus of concentration as he bends over a parcel of cooked glutinous rice. Flattening it carefully, he places spoonfuls of serunding ayam in the centre of the rice before rolling it up in banana leaves and tying the ends with string.
After completing one himself, he turns his attentions to his daughter Nurliyana Rusli’s concoction. Although Nurliyana is herself a trained chef who has worked in illustrious restaurants in Australia, it is her father who is clearly the boss in this kitchen.
“Tekan kuat sikit (press a little harder)” he urges Nurliyana, as she works to craft a replica of the kuih her father has just painstakingly put together. She does as he says, and Rusli’s eyes light up with pride and affection, his face breaking into a wide, adorable smile.
“I have four daughters but only Liyana is interested in making this traditional kuih, so I am teaching her, ” explains Rusli.
Rusli has been making an arsenal of traditional Javanese kuih for over 50 years now, based on his own grandmother’s family recipes, which are well over 100 years old. In Rusli’s family, Javanese culture and traditions have been staunchly defended and maintained, even though his grandmother migrated from west Java to Malaysia nearly a century ago.
Javanese migration to Malaysia dates back to as early as the sixth century and reached a climax in the pre-independence era. In the early days of settling in Malaysia, many people of Javanese descent worked hard to keep their identities intact, retaining their language, traditions and food. But over the decades, many have inter-married with local Malays and a large percentage of the cultural practices have consequently been discarded or forgotten in the assimilation process.
Rusli himself stills speaks the Javanese language (Bahasa Jawa), as do his siblings, although he admits that many of the cultural practices like traditional kuih-making (which Javanese people put on a pedestal) are slowly disappearing with time.
Worried that his community’s traditions will be lost altogether, Rusli is continuing to do his bit to preserve his roots, an appreciation he himself developed from a young age.
Growing up in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, he revelled in the Javanese culture, specifically the cooking and baking that typically accompanied festive occasions like weddings, kenduri and Hari Raya.
Which is why as a teenager, he began cooking and baking himself – first to feed his family’s needs and then to satiate his own burgeoning interest in Javanese culinary practices.
“When I was younger, I always watched my mother cooking and baking. But I only started doing it myself when I was 14. I was in afternoon school and I was the only one at home in the mornings, as my siblings were at school and my parents were labourers who worked as rubber tappers in the mornings and paddy farmers in the afternoons. So I used to go to the market and buy all the ingredients to cook meals for the whole family – that’s how I started.
“And even with these traditional Javanese kuih, I watched my mother making it for years before I started making it as a teenager. No one had ovens then, so she used to bake the old-fashioned way using a pot placed over charcoal fire, so that’s how I learnt to bake too. I would give my kuih to my parents to taste, and when they said it was okay, I knew I was on the right track, ” says Rusli.
In many ways, Rusli’s Hari Raya kuih-making is heavily influenced by the nostalgia of his halcyon days in his kampung, when dining tables were often heaving with all kinds of kuih.
“In the old days, for Hari Raya, each house that you went to, the table would be filled from end to end with 20 to 30 different kinds of traditional kuih Raya. It was so fun to see all the kuih laid out like that. I used to go to people’s homes and count the different kinds of kuih and compare to see who made the most kuih!” he says.
In Rusli’s home, the tradition of making a multitude of Javanese kuih has persevered and every year, he consistently makes a few of his favourites. Like kuih sagun, a crisp, brittle biscuit-like concoction with rich tropical overtures that only calls for the use of three ingredients – grated coconut, glutinous rice flour and sugar.
“In the old days, when I was young, we would make kuih sagun a week before Hari Raya, because it is quite long-lasting. Nowadays, it is hard to find people who make it and many people have also modified the original recipe and added ingredients like butter and eggs, so it is no longer the original version, ” says Rusli.
Rusli also says that the interesting thing about kuih sagun is that it was devised in response to ingredients that were readily available. This availability also extended to the utensils on hand, which is why many old-fashioned recipes for this sweet treat often use the lids of jars or tins as moulds.
Another Hari Raya kuih that is a must-have in Rusli’s home is bakpia Teflon, which is a little like fried bread dough filled with all sorts of fillings in the ilk of red beans, pineapples and peanut butter (Rusli’s personal favourite). The round parcels are typically fried in Teflon-coated pans (which likely gave rise to its name) or baked in the oven until golden brown.
The resulting concoction is truly addictive – the soft, chewy texture of the bread gives way to an interior stuffed with peanut butter, in what proves to be a remarkable marriage of flavours and textures.
“I rarely see this kuih nowadays, I think it is mainly old people who continue to make it. The thing about traditional kuih recipes is that they are simple, but you cannot make mistakes in the execution – that’s why I think younger people prefer modern dessert recipes, ” says Rusli.
Rusli’s lemper pulut ayam is another kuih that makes a regular appearance every Hari Raya. This savoury treat is essentially glutinous rice (pulut) topped with serunding and rolled and sliced into discs. The dish is delightful – soft glutinous rice giving way to the addictive qualities of serunding, which in turns imparts so much flavour in each mouthful.
“This is a Hari Raya staple, sometimes people use it in place of lemang. It’s a kind of Javanese savoury kuih that I grew up eating, but it is gradually being phased out and is difficult to find anywhere now, ” says Rusli.
Although Rusli typically celebrates Hari Raya with his large extended family in Kuala Kangsar, this year, his will be celebrating with his daughters in Kuala Lumpur instead (he has been here for awhile already).
Even though he doesn’t really need to exert himself – given the limited number of people, Rusli has already assured his children that all their favourite kuih will still be on the table come Hari Raya.
“This year, I will make a small quantity of kuih, because that’s enough for everyone. But I have to do it, so that my children don’t forget their roots and the heritage meals inherited from my ancestors – even if we only make it once a year.
“And now that Liyana has taken the initiative to learn how to make the kuih, I am so glad that this legacy will continue, ” he says, smiling.
LEMPER PULUT AYAM
For the serunding ayam filling
1/2 tsp fennel
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
10 small red onions
5 cloves garlic
3 candlenuts (buah keras)
2 tbsp dried anchovies/shrimp, optional
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 bay leaves
2.5cm galangal, thinly sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
1/2 chicken, boiled and shredded
500ml coconut cream
salt and sugar to taste
200g to 300g grated coconut, dry-fried until brown
In a blender, blend fennel, cumin, coriander, onions, garlic, candlenuts and dried shrimp. Set aside.
In a pan, add oil and fry bay leaves, galangal and lemongrass. Once fragrant, add blended mixture and stir well.
Add chicken and combine well into mixture. Then coconut cream and fry till fragrant and well distributed. Finally add grated coconut and fry mixture until it dries up completely.
For the pulut
500 glutinous rice
500g coconut cream
10 pandan leaves
some banana leaves
Soak rice in water for 30 minutes. Steam until half cooked, then add coconut cream and pandan leaves. Add rice, mix well and leave to cook completely.
Place banana leaf on a table, add sticky rice and flatten horizontally. Add serunding filling in the middle, about 4 tablespoons, depending on the size of the lemper. Roll mixture into cylindrical shape and secure each end with string. Cut into smaller pieces and remove leaf before eating.
350g wheat flour
60g brown sugar
2 tbsp condensed milk
150ml warm water
salt to taste
peanut butter, for filling
Mix flour, sugar, butter and condensed milk until texture becomes sandy.
Soak yeast in a bit of warm water. Stir yeast into flour mixture.
Gradually add warm water into the mixture until it forms a dough that doesn’t stick to the bowl. Cover dough and let rise at room temperature, this should take about 1 hour.
Form the dough into palm-sized balls. Flatten and put 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter in the middle of the balls and fold over to cover filling.
Pan-fry the buns in a pan on low heat until golden brown or bake in oven at 150°C for 30 minutes.
2 cups grated coconut
1 3/4 cups glutinous rice flour
1/2 cup castor sugar
Pre-heat oven to 150°C.
Fry coconut and rice flour together until it dries up but before any browning occurs. Leave to cool. Once cooled, add sugar and stir to mix evenly.
Press mixture into moulds. Once shape is formed, remove from moulds. Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until kuih is set.