Singaporean author Bryan Koh remembers distinctly the first Kelantanese meal he had in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur two years ago.
“It’s alchemy: rice noodles, coconutty fish gravy untouched by spice, a frisson of herbs. The fish and coconut really come through in the white sauce, and I love how the ulam sharpens and enhances it, rather than drowning it.
“It was a sparkling little experience,” relates Koh, who had until then only known mostly the food of the Malaysian west coast from his mother who was from Penang and his grandmother who was from Ipoh.
The delicious laksam meal set more than just his taste buds tingling. It also led Koh to his third book on food culture in this region. He had written Milk Pigs and Violet Gold: Philippine Cookery in 2014, which won the Best Food Book Award at the Philippine National Book Awards that year.
His second book, 0451 Mornings Are For Mont Hin Gar: Burmese Food Stories, won third place in the Best Asian Cookbook category at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2016.
Koh who lives in Singapore and co-owns cake companies Chalk Farm and Milk Moons there, studied Mathematics but veered into food journalism.
“Food writing was something that happened spontaneously during my time in university. I was a freelance journalist and wrote travel and food columns. I gradually grew to love writing about food and developed a knack for it,” says Koh.
He has been cooking since he was six; “from a very young age, food has been my lens onto the world”.
“Every sensation, every texture, scent, flavour, is but a tile of a mosaic that I want as lavish and expansive as possible. For many, a dish is a coordinate that connects us to a particular place and time, to a certain group of people and their history.
“It’s an instinctive process that can be overwhelming and by putting it down in words, I feel I am making sense of it, reinforcing what I know and my relationship with a cuisine – if that does not sound too pretentious – and honouring it,” says Koh who embarked on two years of eating, research and writing on the cuisine of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.
He began with Kelantan, travelling there “in the name of research, in the spirit of adventure”.
On one of his trips, he visited Besut in Terengganu and realised that the state shared many dishes with Kelantan. And so Terengganu entered the equation.
A year after that, he included Pahang after realising how little has been written about its food.
He started out by conducting preliminary research on the subject as there is scant documentation on the foods from these parts.
“My research involved establishing contacts and interviewing them. I was lucky to have some of these contacts take me around their hometowns.
“They were proud of their cuisine – and rightfully so – and knew that I was keen to learn and eat as much as possible! They were awfully generous with their time and were not at all cagey about sharing what they knew of their food, including those from their childhood,” shares Koh. Some of these contacts include renowned artist Chan Fee Ming who lives in Kuala Terengganu and designer Tino Soon of the now defunct Salabianca label.
Bekwoh is testament to Koh’s curiosity and fascination with the cuisine of the east coast. Its title is from the Kelantanese lingo that means big feast, which Koh chose to capture the lavishness and big-heartedness of the region’s food. (Click here for a review.)
Koh’s essays which introduces each chapter not only take readers on an exciting – and possibly exotic – journey, but also informs and educates on the local food culture.
They are a compelling mixture of anecdotes, experiences and observations. More importantly, they document the local food wisdom and knowledge which Koh strengthens with his research.
The essay entitled “Kampung Cina”, for instance, is on the Peranakan community in Kelantan and Terengganu, which are not so well-known outside of their states.
Exciting flavour combinations
As much as he delights in the local lingo and names of the food, Koh also takes care to include basic information and generic or scientific terms so that the content is accessible to a wide audience. Then there is the injection of his humour here and there, from wryly surrendering to a copious amount of rice to calling roti jala Simpson-yellow.
Koh explores beyond the familiarity of nasi dagang and ayam percik. He writes about local ingredients such as sare, a Kelantanese seaweed that you have to soak and dry till it turns from black to white, and Terengganu’s dipping sauce, colek, and Pahang’s papaya rojak, gonyok.
“I find the flavour combinations really exciting. Fenugreek seeds and slivered ginger are often slipped into many coconut-based dishes, sweet or savoury. The ozone salinity of the sare (red algae) against the spice and tang of the sambal tumis for kerabu sare is spectacular. I also love the perfumed sourness of singgang against the fire supplied by sambals of pounded chilli and mango,” says Koh.
He is most partial to torch ginger, bunga kantan and ulam rajah.
“I adore manisan nira – it is deep, velvety and smouldering and yet shimmering and fresh on the palate.
“I actually like tempoyak. I grew up splashing bagoong (a fermented fish condiment from the Philippines) on chopped tomatoes and salted eggs to eat with rice, so I have a fondness for budu, too,” adds Koh, whose openness to exploring local ingredients is reflected in his collection of recipes.
Koh also has an extensive chapter on kuih muih, with recipes he has interpreted to make them more accessible to people outside the region and culture.
“Actually, I’m not a trained baker. I’m not even a trained cook. I am self-taught. Kuih is not difficult to make, but it can be tedious (the extracting of pandan juice and coconut milk, the washing, soaking and steaming of glutinous rice) and tricky (making sure you have steamers with the right-sized perforations or the right kind of rice flour).
“And as most kuehs involve a certain alchemy whereby very few ingredients are transformed into something quite extraordinary, every little detail counts. Shortcuts and bottled essences often don’t work out too brilliantly.”
Through Bekwoh, Koh hopes to present something “memorable and potent”. As with his other books, the message is also that every state (region/country) has something wonderful to offer.
“In Singapore most of us do not think beyond Penang, Melaka, KL or Ipoh when it comes to eating. Sometimes it takes more work to find, but when you do, it’s incredibly rewarding.”