This food historian is here to change your idea of Malay food, Lifestyle News


In mainstream media these times, Malay delicacies has had a bad rep. It looks all the evidence—from social media posts by health fanatics to official documentation from the Overall health Promotion Board—points to the similar summary: all that oil, coconut milk and sugar just cannot be healthful. The false impression stems from a gross generalisation of Malay food.

Properly, Khir Johari is in this article to adjust that notion.

With The Foods of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through the Archipelago, the foods historian and now author has written perhaps the most in depth reserve on Malay delicacies in English.

The 624-pager traces its roots from predecessors through the region, meticulously documenting the names, instruments and methods that are in danger of extinction.

Marshall Cavendish Intercontinental published and released the e book final November, and its 1st run of 1,000 copies sold out inside of five times. A second print run will be offered this March.

On a mission

The Food of Singapore Malays originated in California wherever Khir taught higher school arithmetic for six many years, when paying out weekends at the now-defunct Black Oak Textbooks at Berkeley.

There, he uncovered guides composed by British students, Richard Olaf Winstedt and Richard James Wilkinson, who the two experienced extensive knowledge on 20th century British Malaya.

Windstedt’s e book, The Heritage of Malaya, and Wilkinson’s Lifestyle and Customs Component 1: The Incidents of Malay Everyday living ended up simply the suggestion of the iceberg.

To fill in the gaps and cross-references, he pored around travelogues, memoirs, hikayat (fictional tales based mostly on historical Malay events) and Malay manuscripts from as considerably back again as the 19th century, sometimes demanding the assist of translators.

Afterwards, he travelled to the Malay archipelago to source components that had been harvested and geared up in conventional means, and then photographed by Regulation Soo Phye for his ebook.

”To maintain, you ought to document. To doc, you will need to reconstruct,” Khir claims. Employing Singapore as his base, he also visited Medan, the Riau Islands, and Selangor, Malaysia. On celebration, girl luck would intervene.

His search for the kawah, an tremendous solid iron wok he had only found in Bali, led him to a marriage ceremony in Kuala Selangor. On this situation, he managed to photograph the kawah, raised on iron legs above a wooden fire, as a smartly-dressed gentleman with a towel all-around his neck stirred it with a huge wooden paddle. wide web_copy_connection

Tracing his roots

Khir, who is of Javanese descent, grew up in the iconic Gedung Kuning or Yellow Mansion in Kampong Gelam — now known as Kampong Glam—where he immersed himself in the abundant food stuff and culture of the Malay Muslim group in the 1960s and 1970s.

His upbringing compels him to realize history by the evolution of food stuff. Although in California in the noughties, he commenced one thing comparable to a culinary club, the very first in Silicon Valley, where he organised trips to the Persian current market or an Ethiopian restaurant’s kitchen area.

When he returned residence in late 2007, he joined the Singapore Heritage Society and turned its vice president, as effectively as organised heritage trails in Kampong Gelam.

The time spent absent from property, in a country with immigrants from all around the entire world, produced him curious about his roots. “In my campus, there were being 148 diverse languages spoken, so my classroom was like a mini-United Nations.”

In a collection of above 400 pictures and 32 recipes, Khir makes use of his innate fascination for etymology and genealogy to look at indigenous methods this kind of as foraging and food items preservation.


All this groundwork stems from a wish to recognize the Malay delicacies as a portion of Singapore’s South-east Asian historical past. The book’s closing chapter—Food and the Politics of Identity—focusses on the importance of a “mother culture [as] a popular denominator” between nations around the world in the area, emphasising the town-state’s geographic benefit as a port even right before the British did.

For case in point, the fermented shrimp paste used in Malay food stuff, and known as terasi or belachan, is also identified in foodstuff from Thailand, where it is known as ka-pi, and Myanmar (ngapi).

The inspiration

Claudia Roden is one particular creator he admires, so it’s not stunning that he names her as 1 of his favourites.

The Egyptian-born British author of Sephardi ethnicity, wrote The E-book of Middle Jap Food items, broadly regarded as an instrument for introducing the Western world to Egypt and the Middle East. She revisits the politically charged history of the Jewish local community in Egypt by way of recipes and the social indicating attached to them.

In many ways, Khir’s philosophy about French cuisine is identical to that of Roden’s American modern, Julia Child. Her generous use of butter and product in recipes angered critics right until her afterwards decades when she refused to compromise on the flavor of her dishes.

“Her philosophy of food items and foods creation is substantially like my tactic to describing Malay meals,” he suggests.

As with Boy or girl, he doesn’t imagine in substituting coconut milk or product in recipes. Khir gives coconut milk or santan, a staple in Malay cuisine, the attention it justifies regardless of its higher-unwanted fat information. His ebook describes the 11 stages of the drupe’s enhancement, from nyiur ingusan (this means mucous-like) to nyiur gigi belalang (this means grasshopper’s tooth). Freshly squeezed santan, he claims, is nevertheless the ideal.

Khir has found, right after a long time of testing recipes for his ebook, that even though technological know-how has manufactured it simpler to replicate laborious procedures, almost nothing can swap the regular way of carrying out issues.

He considers Che’gu Asfiah, a mostly unknown writer and prepare dinner in Singapore, who compiled a collection of traditional Malay recipes, an priceless supply of info. She’s just just one of several elders he honours as “custodians of knowledge” in the e book.

A week just after talking to a grandmother about her strategy of planning for taro, Khir discovered that she had handed absent. Feeling the sting of time, his up coming project—a proper cookbook to accompany The Foodstuff of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels As a result of the Archipelago — is now underway.

Thirty-two recipes, right after all, are wholly insufficient to showcase the breadth and depth of Malay cuisine. He also intends to exam and translate Che’gu Asfiah’s Malay recipes. Hopefully, these unfamiliar with it will learn that santan and fried meals are not all there is to the cuisine.

This short article was very first printed in The Peak.


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