To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country's states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustrations: Zulhaimi Baharuddin
Negri Sembilan is tucked about 50km south of Kuala Lumpur and boasts a rich culinary heritage. The state’s distinctive cuisine is derived from the Minangkabau folk, who migrated to Negri Sembilan in the 15th century from Indonesia.
The Minangs reside in the highlands in western Sumatra, their strongholds being Bukit Tinggi and the capital, Padang.
The Minangs are the world’s largest matrilineal society and some scholars argue that this might have resulted in the Minang diaspora. There are some 4.5 million Minangs living in Sumatra, and as many dispersed around many Indonesian and Malaysian towns and in Singapore.
Minangkabau males are given to wandering (“merantau”) to seek their fortune. Others say the matrilineal culture is the result of this diaspora: with the men away, it is only logical to hand land and property down to those at home.
Many Minangs settled in Negri Sembilan and brought with them a gastronomic identity that bled into the state’s culinary DNA, leading to a unique Minangkabau-influenced food repository.
This includes the liberal use of cili api (cili padi, or bird’s eye chillies), those small, fiery tongue-burners that are a mainstay in Negri offerings like ketam (crab) and udang (prawn) goreng cili api.
According to chef Datuk Ismail Ahmad – who originates from Rembau in Negri Sembilan, and runs popular Malay restaurant Rebung in Kuala Lumpur – Negri cuisine also features a slew of other recurring characters, like fresh turmeric, coconut cream, lemongrass and asam. Sea salt is also a popular addition to local dishes.
Some of the most popular dishes in the state are beef or chicken rendang, traditionally fragrant, slow-cooked dishes which boast tender, velvety meat, rich spicy undertones and tropical coconut flavours.
According to Ismail, what makes Negri rendang so unique is the lack of kerisik (toasted, grated coconut) in the dish. In other iterations of rendang, this delicious, slightly crisp coconut element is integral and is often added after the coconut milk has been absorbed into the dish. The Negri version does without, instead incorporating more coconut milk.
According to Ismail, when making a chicken rendang for example, the milk from three coconuts will be used for one chicken! But as with most recipes, opinions often differ and there are variances in heirloom recipes within communities and even families.
According to chef Ard Abdul Aziz, the executive sous chef of upscale Malay eatery The 39 Restaurant, some Negri rendangs do incorporate kerisik and still uses a large quantity of coconut milk in the recipes.
In Negri Sembilan, there are two popular versions of rendang – the Kuala Pilah rendang and the Rembau rendang.
Kuala Pilah rendang is typified by its summery yellow hue. This rendang has fresh turmeric, lemongrass and coconut milk but no onion at all, which yields a minimally less sweet result. Some versions also use daun puding, a local herb which enhances the aroma of the dish. In this adaptation, the meat is braised for a shorter period, resulting in the lighter colour and a more gravy-like consistency.
Rembau rendang, which is more popular, was originally made using buffalo meat, as buffaloes were abundant way back when. These days, beef (or chicken) is often used instead.
Rembau rendang is a dark, woody colour and quite spicy, as it is made using cili padi and dried chillies.
Ard adds that the dark colour of this rendang is a result of the hours of slow cooking, resulting in a richer, drier dish. This style also includes onions, which are apparently always sliced – never blended into a paste, according to Ismail.
Cili padi, or bird’s eye chillies are ubiquitous in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking, and are extremely spicy, register-ing between 100,000 to 250,000 on the Scoville scale. They were brought to Malaysia by the Portuguese, and have since taken up permanent residence in the country’s culinary culture, infiltrating everything from sambal to rendang with furious heat. All chillies originate in Mexico and were spread around the world by the Portuguese and Spanish.
Coconuts are a regular part of the tropical and subtropical diets. In India and South-east Asia, all parts of the tree are used. In cooking, coconut milk and oil, and sometimes the water and leaf fronds, are used. In Minang cuisine, thick and thin coconut milk are distinguished. Thick coconut milk comes from first pressing of the grated flesh, and thin coconut milk from a second pressing, with the addition of water. Thick coconut milk is generally used for desserts or rich savoury dishes while thin coconut milk is part and parcel of everyday cooking in most Malaysian homes.
More dishes from Negri Sembilan
Seremban siew pau
For some, no visit to Seremban is complete without a sampling of this pastry stuffed with a rich, savoury filling of salty-sweet, minced barbecue meat. Baked until browned, the layered pastry is flaky and crisp. One can hardly miss the biggest and most famous of the lot: Empayar Seremban Siew Pow occupies a huge, imposing complex just off the North-South highway. The family-run business started selling the baked pau in 1973.
Negri is famous for smoked meat in all its permutations – chicken, duck or beef. In fact, meat in Negri Sembilan is rarely grilled because smoking is so popular. The practice started as a way to preserve and extend the shelf life of meat. Smoking removes moisture and dries out the meat. It also adds a delectable smoky flavour and toothsome chew. Thus preserved, smoked meats can be used to cook a plethora of local dishes.
Masak lemak cili api
Masak lemak is a turmeric-infused, creamy cooking style ubiquitous all over the country... but nowhere is it as famous as in Negri Sembilan, as the method is usually attributed to the Minangs residing in the state. The heat-loving Minangs dial up their masak lemaks with great fistfuls of cili api . The style makes copious use of thick coconut milk and is used as a base gravy for meat, seafood and vegetables.