The 12 flavour categories of Malay food: Masam, manis, mamek, and more


Malay food is incredibly rich and diverse and the language has evolved to include a range of flavour descriptors that best describe the food. — Photos: LAW SOO PHYE/The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through The Malay Archipelago

Languages around the world often have unique words used to define foods: the Italian word ‘al dente’ for instance translates to ‘to the teeth’ and is used to describe the perfect cook on pasta and rice. Can you think of an equivalent word in English that best sums this up? Probably not.

Similarly, the Malay language also has particular flavour categories that the language has devised around the concept of sensations ascribed to ingredients i.e. flavours.

This was one of the discoveries made by renowned Singaporean food historian Khir Johari who released his 2021 magnum opus The Food of Singapore Malays: A Gastronomic Odyssey Through the Malay Archipelago, an 11-year research project that is now considered the definitive book on Malay culinary heritage and practices. One of Khir’s watershed findings in the book is the 12 flavour categories in the Malay language that best define the food of the Malay Archipelago.

Khir’s landmark book took over a decade to come to fruition and is considered a watershed book on Malay gastronomy.Khir’s landmark book took over a decade to come to fruition and is considered a watershed book on Malay gastronomy.

A brief introduction

It is probably worth noting that many of the 12 flavour categories that Khir includes in his book are not perfectly translatable to English, as they are so wrapped around cultural nuances.

But first, it is important to understand the difference between taste and flavour.

“Taste refers to basic sensations detected by the taste buds, so we are very familiar with tastebuds on our tongue – things like sweet, salty, sour and bitter – that is taste and is based on sensation.

“Now flavour is a more complex perception that combines taste with other sensory inputs. For example, texture, aroma and temperature play a part so we can say that taste is a part of flavour but taste is not flavour. There is more to flavour.

“I think it is important to understand the distinction because flavour is a broader sense of sensory perception,” says Khir.

Coming up with the categories

To put together the 12 categories, Khir combed through research material and read extensively. His original list was actually shorter but he extended it because he wanted to leave no stone unturned.

Khir says many of the 12 flavour categories cannot be translated to English but he hopes the words will be more widely known and used when people are cooking and eating Malay food.Khir says many of the 12 flavour categories cannot be translated to English but he hopes the words will be more widely known and used when people are cooking and eating Malay food.

“I grew up with all these flavours, but I just wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. So I started compiling – I looked at the familiar flavours and then I looked at various books.

“For example, there is something called hambar (something that tastes flat). You go to a restaurant and someone says, ‘Eh, this kuah is so hambar!’ But is hambar a flavour profile or is hambar an adjective to describe something that is flat – taste-wise? I felt it was the latter, so I didn’t include hambar in the list,” he says.

Ultimately though, Khir says he hopes that these 12 flavour categories will help revive the description of flavours in the Malay language and in Malay cooking as many people, including those of Malay origin, don’t cook enough to know all of these flavour descriptors.

“I think I scratched the surface, because I think there’s a lot more. I am still reading a lot and have learnt more things. Like I just discovered that in Johor, there is a lauk called 'lauk belantok’ which is used to describe lauk that is stale but still edible from a day or two ago.

“But I think the 12 flavour categories are an eye-opener – even for Malay people. So it would be good for everyone to see the richness of the food vocabulary because people have already forgotten some things,” he says.

THE 12 FLAVOUR CATEGORIES
Asam/masam

Used to describe sourness of any sort, but in particular that particular lip-puckering quality often associated with asam dishes (meals with tamarind as a base flavouring agent) like asam pedas, for example.

Ikan asam pedas is a clear example of a dish that is masam (sour). — FilepicIkan asam pedas is a clear example of a dish that is masam (sour). — Filepic

“I think souring agents are very important in the Nusantara region, you have a huge source of souring agents which add flavour to dishes. So we have vinegar, citruses and we have fruits that provide acidity like garcinia (asam gelugor or asam keeping i.e. tamarind). The fruit of the bunga kantan is very tart but it’s so refreshing in your clear soup – that’s asam.

“In this list, I included both masam and asam. Technically speaking, asam is the sauce that could be fashioned out of asam jawa, but masam is the correct word to describe the sourness of asam. But sometimes people use it interchangeably, so people will say ‘Oh asam rasanya’, but actually it should be masam, but that’s why I included both,” he says.

Asin/masin

Both asin and masin are used to describe foods in the Malay culinary world that are salty or have a DNA structure where salt is a crucial component. An example of something that is masin is ikan masin (salted fish).

Salted fish is fish that has been cured in salt and perfectly describes an ingredient that is masin.Salted fish is fish that has been cured in salt and perfectly describes an ingredient that is masin.

“’Ikan asin rasanya masin’ (salted fish tastes salty). Salt is very important because it is a great source of preservation, we salt a lot of things and fish is No 1, because during the maritime period, there was a lot of fish but no refrigeration so how did they preserve it? With salt. So salt was and continues to be used to preserve fish and other seafood like prawns,” says Khir.

Kelat

The word ‘kelat’ has an important role for Khir because it is this word that compelled him to come up with the flavour categories in the Malay language in the first place.

“I was living in America at the time and my friend and I went to the market. I was looking for bananas to make jemput-jemput (cekodok pisang). I asked my friend to take a bite and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s unripe’. And I said, ‘There is a distinctive flavour in my culture that describes the flavour of something unripe.’”

Unripe bananas give off the flavour sensation of ‘kelat’. — ALLEKSANA/PexelsUnripe bananas give off the flavour sensation of ‘kelat’. — ALLEKSANA/Pexels

“But there isn’t that cultural understanding of ‘kelat’ among Americans. And here, we have it – there is even that famous, melancholic song called ‘Mengapa Dirindu’ sung by Saloma and the lyrics go like this ‘Kalau pinang masih muda, rasanya kelat sudah lah pasti’.

“So the understanding is you want to eat pinang but you don’t want young pinang because it is kelat. But of course you encounter kelat in your unripe banana, you encounter it in your buah salak (snake fruit). You eat the wrong ones and it sticks to the roof of your tongue, same thing with persimmons – collectively we all call it kelat,” he says.

Lemak

There is nothing that defines the culture and heritage of the food of the Malay Archipelago quite like the word ‘lemak’. The humble coconut is a crucial part of the gastronomic diets of everyday Malays (and Malaysians) and the word describes the flavour sensations and connotations often associated with the richness of coconut-laced dishes.

“So we look at how Malay culture has the most intimate understanding of coconut in all its forms – from young coconuts to coconut flesh to first press and second press coconut milk and so on. And because of this understanding, there is this distinctive flavour that the Malays call ‘lemak’.

Lemak is used to describe foods that are rich in coconut milk.Lemak is used to describe foods that are rich in coconut milk.

“It is a meal that is not just creamy but it has to be rich and have a certain sweetness (not sugar sweetness; more of a coconut-esque sweetness).

“A simple one would be nasi lemak. Somewhere along the way, our ancestors said ‘Can coconut milk be that liquid used to cook rice?’ and ta-da, we have nasi lemak!

“For something to be lemak, you have to get that sensation of lemak and somehow sodium plays a role. When you add sodium, it pushes that lemak up.

“And it has cultural undertones – when someone has a rich, creamy, honeyed voice, you say they have a ‘suara lemak’,” he says.

Mamek

Mamek is a difficult flavour category to write about, because it is only when you try something mamek that you will have a strong idea of what it means. Also, it is a clear example of a meal gone wrong.

“Sometimes you go to a restaurant and you want a savoury dish but there is a sweetness to the dish to the point where it tastes not fresh, but stale. You might expect it to have a gingery, lemongrass flavour and yet it is too sweet. And with mamek, normally you take a few spoonfuls and you get muak (sickened).

“No one wants their dish to be mamek, because it means you made a boo-boo,” he says.

Manis

Manis is the blanket word used to talk about anything sweet in relation to food. This sweetness could be derived from fruits (manis buah), honey (manis madu) or other sweet components like sugar cane, palm sugar and coconut. Manis is also used as a flavour descriptor for many of the sweetmeats or kuih in the Malay world, from kuih lapis to kuih seri muka.

Wajik is a sweet Malay treat.Wajik is a sweet Malay treat.

Maung

Maung is used specifically to refer to a sensation derived when a dish hasn’t been attended to properly and consequently the cooking process hasn’t reached a point of completion. It can also refer to a dish that has excessive lemongrass, which consequently has a raw horseradish taste.

“There is a whole cooking process called tumis. So menumis is basically when you have a certain volume of shallots, garlic or chillies that need to be cooked but with limited oil. Why menumis? Because all these ingredients need to be treated and cooked to release their flavours. So obviously, it takes a while to tumis.

Menumis is part of the cooking process for dishes like sambals. When ingredients haven’t been properly tumised, the flavour becomes maung.Menumis is part of the cooking process for dishes like sambals. When ingredients haven’t been properly tumised, the flavour becomes maung.

“Now if you don’t menumis until the ingredients are properly cooked (everything has to be caramelised), people will say, ‘What kind of sambal is this? I can taste the raw chillies! Maung rasanya! (It tastes maung). You get maung when you haven’t quite attained that step,” he says.

Pahit

‘Pahit’ means ‘bitter’ and often refers to leaves, roots or shoots with bitter qualities. It can also reference something medicinal, like a bitter pill. Other bitter ingredients include petai, jering and daun beremi, which is at first bitter but then becomes progressively more pleasant.

Many meals in the Malay culinary world also have some element of bitterness to balance something else out. Pucuk betik (papaya flowers) for example are notoriously bitter but are boiled and then eaten alongside sambal belacan, which rounds out the entire flavour profile.

Petai, jering and some medicinal leaves, roots and shoots are all termed pahit (bitter). — FilepicPetai, jering and some medicinal leaves, roots and shoots are all termed pahit (bitter). — Filepic

Payau

As a direct translation, payau means brackish and is a reference to water and its salinity levels (often in reference to river estuaries). That tang of salt in water has a particular flavour profile and Khir says this can actually be found in a famous branded bottled water, which is brackish water.

Pedar

Pedar means to have a numbing effect. This effect is similar to mala, the numbing sensation released when people consume a dish with Szechuan chilli peppers.

In the Malay world, this sensation comes into being with a number of ingredients.

If you eat galangal on its own, you will get a strong pedar (numbing) experience. — FilepicIf you eat galangal on its own, you will get a strong pedar (numbing) experience. — Filepic

“So when you look at the use of galangal, you crush it to get the flavour and aroma, but if you imagine eating galangal on its own, you get a pedar experience.

“You also experience pedar if you eat daun cekur in excess. So I would say that pedar is the more intense version of pedas because it sticks to your mouth cavity. For example, I can enjoy something pedas and still eat other things, but with pedar, it blocks everything else,” says Khir.

Pedas

Ah, what is Malay food without a little heat and fire? According to Khir, pedas in its truest context refers to piquancy. The word ‘pedas’ first came into existence in the Malay language as a term used to describe anything that was peppery. This was in reference to the Javanese pepper, or cabai, as it was called as well as the native andaliman, a peppery plant from Sumatra used to flavour food.

When chillies were introduced to the Malay Archipelago, they became so popular, that they were also called ‘cabai’ and consequently the word ‘pedas’ continued to be used in reference to a dish that was either peppery or spicy.

Pedas is the umbrella word used to describe meals that are spicy or peppery. — FilepicPedas is the umbrella word used to describe meals that are spicy or peppery. — Filepic

Examples of spicy Malay dishes include perennial favourites like masak lemak cili api and the rich tapestry of sambals like sambal belimbing and sambal hijau that form the bedrock of Malay cuisine.

Tawar

“Tawar is bland. How do you describe a flavour profile of a dish when there is not enough of a thing that ought to be there – more saltiness, more acidity, more tamarind? It is tawar. It is lacking,” says Khir.

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