What makes some food survive the long haul while others disappear without a trace? While Negri Sembilan is famous for its rendangs and coconut milk-rich gulais fired up by bird’s eye chillies, other dishes from the Minang table – like a rendang made of leaves – are hardly known outside of local homes.
Concerns over the fate of lesser-known traditional foods surfaced at the Mini Pesta Masakan Traditional, a small affair held at the Seri Menanti Resort, within view of the old palace. The women living around the royal town of Sri Menanti in Kuala Pilah had gotten together to showcase their food heritage.
Nearly all aged 50 and above, they are the last in line who are still making the traditional dishes taught to them by their mothers and grandmothers.
Many of the ladies agree that traditional cooking styles in the state arose based on what was available around them. Back in the day, there were few shops or convenience stores, so people simply used what was on the land, making use of trees, plants and leaves in their gardens or neighbours’ plots.
According to 58-year-old Zuriati Husain, by her estimation, there are approximately 44 different kinds of wild leaves in the state that can be utilised for local food.
But Zuriati and her peers seem to be a dying breed. They all lament the fact that few young people are keen to learn older recipes which use all sorts of foraged local plants, shoots and leaves, preferring instead to eat out or modernise the recipes in favour of convenience.
Take gulai umbut kelapa for instance, which is a traditional Negri dish that employs the use of coconut palm shoots (another example of the state’s affinity for coconut). According to 57-year-old Rozalmi Alias – who makes gulai umbut kelapa when she can – the dish was once very popular at kenduris, but is also a costly affair as to get the palm shoots, an entire coconut tree has to be sacrificed!
“I learnt how to make this dish from my grandmother – people used to make it all the time for weddings and kenduris. If it was a big kenduri, they would cut down five or six coconut trees.
“These days, instead of coconut trees, people use palm trees, because you can get palm trees anywhere. It doesn’t taste as nice as coconut palm shoots though – the texture is rougher,” she says.
Rozalmi thinks the recipe will die out soon as younger people don’t seem to like the taste and flavour of umbut kelapa and most of them abhor the work that goes into making it. The few who are willing to try their hand at it often choose to use the easier-to-source palm tree shoot instead.
Rendangs are also ubiquitous in Negri cuisine, but while most people are familiar with chicken and beef rendang, interestingly, there are greener variants that make use of local leaves like pegaga and maman.
Datin Sri Zainah Ibrahim, who makes a mean rendang pegaga, says the key to making a good, leafy rendang is to have patience.
“Negri Sembilan food is very simple; we don’t use a lot of spices. The most important ingredients are cili padi, turmeric and coconut milk. But even though you need just a few ingredients, it takes a long time to cook, because everything is slow-cooked,” she says.
This is a sentiment echoed by 53-year-old Jauhariah Mohd Sidek, who makes a very good rendition of traditional rendang maman. It utilises maman leaves, which are found primarily in Kuala Pilah and Gemencheh (where it is served during Hari Raya) in Negri Sembilan. Apparently, the leaf is so little-known outside these areas that most people either haven’t seen the tree or have never even heard of it.
According to Jauhariah, making rendang maman is a long-drawn affair that takes two to three hours for the leaves to become crispy and the gravy to dry up, resulting in a rich, flavourful leafy rendang.
Experience is essential in making this dish as people who don’t know how to handle the leaves often end up with a very bitter concoction.
Jauhariah says she too realises that there might be an expiry date for this recipe, as few younger people seem to be interested in making it these days. She has tried teaching it to her 17-year-old daughter but the latter doesn’t like it very much and hasn’t taken to it at all.
“It’s like a dying recipe; I think it’s too traditional for younger people as you have to stand over the fire for a long time, which I don’t think they’re willing to do,” she says.
Another traditional dish which makes full use of locally-sourced edible leaves is the creamy, highly addictive tempoyak daun racik.
The dish employs nearly 10 different kinds of leaves and shoots, like daun manggun and daun cengkering.
Zuriati – who is a dab hand at making this form of tempoyak – says that the balance of leaves in the dish is crucial to attaining a rich, flavourful dish that is neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. “It is a little bit of campur-campur, but the balance must be right otherwise the taste will be off. For instance, if you put too much daun kaduk, it will be bitter,” she says.
She says there are many iterations of this dish using different leaves, but she learnt her heritage recipe from her mother. Zuriati adds that cutting the many different leaves required for this recipe requires immense patience, which is why it is mostly the older generation who end up doing it, as the younger crowd have neither the time nor the inclination to do this.
Interestingly, although the younger generation may not be fans of these dishes, members of the Negri royal family are, according to 84-year-old Rafeah Hamzah (better known in the area as Mak Ayo).
Rafeah is an expert on the royal family’s culinary predilections as she served the palace for over 40 years and often cooked authentic Negri dishes like the rendang pegaga as well as gulai umbut kelapa and ayam masak kuning with jackfruit.
“They really like to eat traditional food at the palace. And it’s the same way of cooking – recipes are passed down from one generation to the next, to keep the traditions alive,” she says.
While there is a constant worry that these recipes will soon disappear from the local culinary tapestry, there are those who remain hopeful that younger people will eventually learn how to make some of these dishes.
Like Jauhariah, who says that although her daughter has yet to learn how to make rendang maman from her (incidentally a recipe she inherited from her own mother), she is still young and there is the possibility that she will eventually come around to it.
“She’s only 17, maybe she’ll want to learn to make it later – you never know,” she says.
TEMPOYAK DAUN KAYU RACIK
3 turmeric leaves
3 kaduk leaves
3 or 4 pumpkin leaves
3 lidah jin leaves
3 sekentut leaves
10 pieces tapioca shoots
10 cengkering leaves
10 mangun leaves
10-20 bird’s eye chillies, sliced
2cm fresh turmeric root, sliced thinly
1/2 cup water
1kg coconut milk
3 large ladlefuls tempoyak
seeds from 2-3 petai pods, cut thinly
5 stalks lemongrass, bruised and white part sliced thinly
sugar and salt to taste
1 ikan bilis stock cube
Cut all leaves and shoots into thin strips. Blitz the bird’s eye chillies together with the turmeric and water in an electric blender. Set aside.
In a large wok, cook coconut milk and chilli and turmeric mixture until the mixture thickens.
Then add the tempoyak, sliced leaves, petai and lemongrass. Season to taste with salt, sugar and the ikan bilis cube.
Cook until the mixture is very thick and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Serves 4 to 6
30-35 bird’s eye chillies, sliced
5cm (2”) fresh turmeric root, sliced
50g ikan bilis (dried anchovies)
1kg thick coconut milk
1kg maman leaves and stalks (smooth part), cut thinly
Blend the chillies, turmeric and anchovies together. In a wok, cook coconut milk and blended chilli mixture on low heat until mixture thickens and oil surfaces.
Then add the maman leaves and cook for 2 hours on low heat, stirring continuously until the leaves are crispy. Drain excess oil before serving.
2 red chillies, sliced thinly
10 bird’s eye chillies, sliced thinly
200g ikan bilis (dried anchovies), rinsed
2 limes, juiced
salt to taste
Pound chillies with a mortar and pestle to a rough paste. Add the ikan bilis and pound lightly with the chillies. Season to taste with the lime juice and salt.
GULAI UMBUT KELAPA
1kg umbut kelapa (coconut palm shoots)
1kg coconut milk
3 turmeric leaves
salt to taste
Boil umbut until soft, about an hour. When softened, discard water and add coconut milk, turmeric leaves and salt.
Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the mixture bubbles. Remove from heat and serve hot with sambal gesek.
Serves 6 to 8
1kg pegaga leaves (Indian pennywort), roots and lower stem removed
a handful of bird’s eye chillies, sliced
6cm fresh turmeric root
10 shallots, peeled
2kg fresh coconut milk
5-6 lemongrass stalks, bruised
4 pieces dried asam gelugor
a handful of ikan bilis (dried anchovies)
salt to taste
Slice pegaga leaves finely and set aside. Blend chillies, turmeric and shallots together until smooth.
In a large wok, put everything except the pegaga leaves in and cook on low heat. Stir until oil surfaces, then add the leaves. Add salt and keep stirring for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
You will know it’s cooked when the lemongrass becomes crispy. Remove from heat and serve.