Discoveries can only be made when intrepid men and women dare to go against the grain, whether that is treading uncharted waters by creating something new or fashioning something new out of something old.
The latter is exactly what erudite Malay history and culture researcher Khir Johari set out to do when he decided to research and write a watershed book on Malay food, weaving through the history, anthropology, botany, cooking techniques, mythology, composition and evolution of Malay cuisine.
“When I was living in America and people asked me, ‘Where are you from?” I would say I am from Singapore and they would ask, ‘So what kind of food do you eat over there?’ So all of this slowly, slowly started to crystallise and then I asked tough questions like ‘Why do we eat why we eat?’” says the affable Khir via a Zoom interview.
“So I had all these questions, so it started to trigger a vision and I thought, ‘There ought to be some kind of documentation’. We need to document our food in print and it has to be based on good evidence, great resources, cogent arguments and whatever thesis we want to come up with.
“So I was thinking, ‘This is something that needs to be done – there is nothing like that!’” he adds.
Over the course of 11 years, Khir stitched together an intricate tapestry on Malay food, built through nuggets of information eventually slotted neatly into assorted categories.
In many ways, the book was like a puzzle so insurmountable, it took a decade to find all the right pieces to complete the assembly.
Late last year, his seminal debut book, the whopping 624-page The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through the Archipelago was published to critical and commercial acclaim (the first print was completely sold out and the second print will be out soon and already has overwhelming demand).
The book has clearly struck a chord with many people from the Malay Archipelago and beyond, because despite the heft and size of the Malay population, Malay food is a woefully underwritten and underrepresented subject.
Sure, cookbooks abound, but there is nothing of the sheer magnitude that Khir has successfully attempted and accomplished.
For many people, this is a book they have been waiting to read. It just needed the right person to write it. Which is why the book – and Khir – have been rightfully heralded and welcomed with open arms.
Writing the book
It takes unwavering curiosity and a desire to answer questions that have remained unanswered for far too long to press ahead with a project as large and expansive as The Food of Singapore Malays.
And in this sense, Khir is ideally positioned to write this book. As a child, he grew up in the oldest Muslim quarter in Singapore, the historic Kampung Gelam in a home called Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion) that was once an annex of the royal palace of the Sultan of Singapore.
His childhood home housed four generations of his family, all drawn together by his great-grandmother, the matriarch of the home. Under these charming auspices, the young Khir developed a keen sense of inquisitiveness, forged by his internal and external surrounds.
“I was born and raised in Kampung Gelam, which was historically the New York of the Malay world. So I grew up in that cosmopolitan, very urban setting and that formed my tastebuds. My home was on a street called Kandahar Street, the entire stretch was occupied by food stalls – you could see people selling all sorts of things from appam to thosai to fried pigeon all within that one street.
“And at Gedung Kuning, being a big family, we entertained quite a bit, we had four kitchens so every time someone came, we had all sorts of parties. So all of this served to influence me, and as a child I was always curious.
"I questioned, ‘What is this?’ What’s inside this? Why is this sweet?’ So that also creates the curiosity to want to know,” he says.
When he grew up, Khir went to university in the United States and remained there for over a decade, spending seven years teaching mathematics in a high school. It was while he was there that he began questioning his cultural identity and the food that formed his connection to his roots. This line of inquiry sparked first the idea and then the vision for the book.
But the true journey towards writing the book began when he started collecting written material on South-East Asia and the Malay Archipelago, many of which he stumbled upon in second-hand bookstores in America. When he returned to Singapore in 2007, he joined the Singapore Heritage Society, started conducting heritage trails to Kampung Gelam and began the research arm of his book in earnest.
This involved trawling through journals, colonial reports on trade, memoirs, hikayats (Malay sagas) and travelogues – gleaned from sources all from the world from Malaysia to the United Kingdom, Singapore and Netherlands. Khir also gained access to manuscripts online, thanks to the Malay Concordance Project created by Ian Proudfoot of the National University of Australia.
His research wasn’t just devoted to reading though; he also travelled extensively around the Malay Archipelago to meet with different Malay communities – from fishermen to scholars.
He says putting the book together involved a race against time, because there was so much reliance on the stories and oral history of Malay elders and likens the death of a single grandmother to “the closure of a library”.
And then there was the entire process of evidence-gathering, which involved looking at artefacts and verifying claims.
“When someone told me you can find putu piring in the Bay of Bengal, I went to the Bay of Bengal to check. I also went to Fujian, China twice to check what kind of food they had, so that I could make a connection, because making claims is easy but you need to have enough evidence to be able to extrapolate,” he says.
Although the first line of the synopsis at the back of the book says ‘This is not a cookbook’, Khir did actually include 32 recipes for dishes like udang kota gading, beyek-beyek, laksa Singapura and many more, at the behest of people who felt that a book on food was in dire need of some actual recipes!
“It’s a story about a people, about culture and cultural belief told through food – that’s the bigger message.
“But people said, ‘Aiyah, you must have some recipes, because the book should cater to everybody!’ And all the makciks (aunties) said ‘How come a book on Malay food has no recipes? Cannot! Must have some recipes!’
“So I said, ‘Okay, I will have some recipes but I don’t want so many.’ So it was difficult, I started out with over 60 recipes and narrowed it down to 32,” he explains.
The book is divided into four sections that tackle subjects relevant to Malay food, from the history of the Malay world to foraging, crops, food as medicine, cooking techniques, tools, Malay feasts, symbolism and mythology, cultural exchange and the future of Malay food. The level of research and detail provided in the book is startling and frankly, unprecedented.
And yet the astonishing thing about The Food of Singapore Malays is that although it is over 600 pages long, it is an engrossing, thoroughly unput-downable book. If you are a food lover, history buff or culture fiend (or just someone with an interest in the Malay Archipelago), there will never be a moment in this book when somnolence takes over.
Although Khir’s aim is evidently to share knowledge, his writing style is not driven by didactic pedagogy. Instead he imparts his thoughts and learnings in a very fun, engaging way that makes the book extremely accessible to readers of all stripes (which makes sense, because he was actually a teacher!).
This is further accentuated by lush, stunning photography (nearly 400 images in total) brought to life by talented Malaysian photographer Law Soo Phye.
Although the title alludes to a Singaporean Malay slant, in reality, while Singapore acts as a foundational force, offering a unique view of the Malay cuisine that sprouted in the island state – the book is really about the wider umbrella that encompasses all of Malay food. This also makes an excellent case for the idiom ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.
“We are using Singapore as a vantage point to look across the region and understand why Singapore Malay food is Singapore Malay food,” explains Khir.
“So Singapore might be in the title, but a lot of people are like, ‘Hey, it’s about Malay food!’ And that’s exactly one of the objectives of this book, to look at food beyond geopolitical boundaries,” he says.
The book begins with a detailed analysis of Malays – an ethnic group (one of over a dozen in Indonesia) that can be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and also in the Malay diaspora, namely Cape Town in South Africa, Christmas Island and Sri Lanka.
Khir recounts how the term ‘Melayu’ is an ancient word, first discovered in a report by a Chinese monk Yijing in 671AD while the term ‘Malay Archipelago’ was adopted by European visitors, who viewed it as the homeland of Malay-speaking people.
In Malaysia and Singapore, the Malay Archipelago (or Nusantara) refers to the regions of Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula while in Indonesia, Nusantara in its’ modern context typically refers only to parts of the Archipelago that are in Indonesia itself.
The book swoops through past and present fluidly and this passage of time is also poignantly illustrated through food. For example, did you know that until the 15th century, sago was the most consumed carbohydrate in Melaka? Rice was only enjoyed by the upper echelons of society with widespread rice cultivation beginning in the 16th century.
The Malay Peninsula has also been the recipient of varied cultural exchange over the centuries, which has influenced its food and given it a decidedly international sheen. The Portuguese for instance, introduced chilli peppers that became the basis of the various sambals that now adorn modern Malay tables across the Nusantara region. Trade with the Indian subcontinent meanwhile acclimatised the region to the concept of Indian roti.
Even the Malay language itself betrays which country introduced a food concept or ingredient. The word ‘kenduri’ for example is from the Persian ‘kanduri’ while ‘keju’ and ‘mentega’ are lifted from Portuguese and show how these early Europeans brought these goods with them.
Kicap manis meanwhile is a Nusantara take on the Chinese soy sauce (kicap); incidentally Chinese trade also introduced the region to taucho (salted soy bean paste), tofu and mung beans.
“Malay food is like the Malay language, it has the base language, but it is also influenced by so many things because the Malay world is a maritime world. What other place has absorbed so many cultures?
“And because Malay food is made up of so many things, today Malays eat things like tofu and taucho, but you can no longer say it is Chinese. No, it is part of the Malay world.
“After all, can you go to a Japanese restaurant and say tofu is Chinese? No, it is Japanese food. And likewise, taucho has been around for so long already, it is now part of this big Malay culinary lexicon,” says Khir.
Even taste profiles are unique and very specific to Malay cooking. While there are universally acknowledged to be five taste profiles – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, the Malay language ascribes 12 flavour categories, including kelat (the taste of unripe fruit like banana) and lemak which is very specific to Malay dishes made using coconut milk.
Perhaps one of the most interesting discussions in the book revolves around the future of Malay food. With little in the way of codification and many of the old ways dying out, traditional Malay food runs the risk of falling victim to extreme modification and fusion – if no effort is made to right this wrong.
“I think it is important for us as a region to start codifying. The French have done it, so we need to start having a conversation about this. We need to codify for example ‘What is cendol?’
“I mean, in Germany, something like the Black Forest cake is legally protected, so I think we also need to codify Malay food. We don’t want people to come and tell us on the international stage, ‘Eh, your rendang is not crispy!’” reasons Khir.
In line with this need to preserve the integrity and authenticity of Malay cuisine, Khir also makes an argument for ingredients to be called by their actual Malay names – at least in a local context where it makes sense. For instance, he asks why daun kesum has to be Anglicised and called laksa leaf, especially since a laksa dish may not actually have daun kesum in it.
“When you look within your circle of friends and family who enjoy eating Japanese food, you will realise that everyone knows the nomenclature of everything. If it is tuna, they know what is otoro (tuna belly) and chutoro (medium fatty tuna), because they have elevated the cuisine.
“But what about our own food – jadi anak tiri ah (does it become like a stepchild)? Why not learn it is called daun kesum, how difficult is that if you know the name of every Japanese ingredient?
“You see, to call daun kesum ‘laksa leaf’ is like calling basil ‘pesto leaf’. Pesto is made from not just basil and basil is not just meant for pesto. And daun kesom is used in botok-botok and asam pedas so why limit it to laksa leaf? So I think we need to start at some point educating, exposing and getting people to learn local terms,” he says.
The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through the Archipelago is priced at RM250 and limited copies will be available in early-to-mid April 2022 at Kinokuniya KLCC.