There is so much to love about kerabu – that riotous, tropical local salad, made using vegetables and herbs, and dressed with a fiery sambal, coconut and lime. It is sharp, tangy and often inherently addictive.
Kerabu is typically served as a side dish in Malay cuisine and emerged – like many dishes before it – as a way to utilise both raw and cooked leftover ingredients.
“There is nothing written about kerabu. But from what we gathered from our elders, it was initiated as a way to make use of leftover ingredients, because people in previous generations didn’t like to waste food.
The initial idea behind kerabu was that it could be any combination of ingredients that collectively created punchy flavours and triggered your appetite,” says Ali Mohamad Noor, a senior lecturer at UiTM’s faculty of hotel and tourism and management.
Ali and his colleagues at the faculty have become extremely well acquainted with the subject of kerabu, as the entire department recently collaborated to produce a cookbook entitled Gastronomi Warisan, released in tandem with Kongres Makanan Warisan 2019, the university’s seminal conference on Malay heritage food.
The cookbook incorporates a lengthy chapter on kerabu, and is part of the department’s efforts to catalogue kerabu recipes that are phasing out, including rare fare like pencuk daun kayu, kerabu terung pipit belimbing buluh, urap pucuk remunggai ikan kering and kerabu pucuk niding.
“For the cookbook, each of us was required to find a rare kerabu – we didn’t want to feature common ones.
“We wanted to highlight these recipes because one of the reasons some of these kerabus are not popular is because it’s very difficult to find the ingredients. Because of that, nobody is preparing it and the new generation doesn’t know about it,” he adds.
Although the word ‘kerabu’ itself is used widely these days as an umbrella term, there was a time when different terminology was employed.
For example, ‘kerabu’ was typically associated with salads that made use of kerisik (grated, toasted coconut) while the term ‘urap’ (sometimes spelt ‘urab’) was once used to refer to salads made using grated coconut or coconut milk. A salad devoid of any coconut element and enlivened with just lime and chilli, was called ‘pencuk’.
“Traditionally, kerabu was differentiated with these three terms, especially in the west coast, like Selangor. Nowadays, people find it easier to just call it ‘kerabu’,” says Ali.
Modern kerabus are typically vegetable-centric dishes made using popular local raw vegetables like four-angled bean, fiddlehead fern and cucumber and julienned herbs like daun selom and daun kaduk. Some variations can include fruits like mangoes or jackfruits while others make use of cooked meat or fish.
Most local kerabu recipes also incorporate a fiery element like sambal belacan or fresh chillies, sometimes tempered with the addition of limes or tamarind to tie the strong, vibrant flavours together.
But while the most popular kerabu recipes of today utilise ingredients borne out of convenience i.e. whatever is most readily available in local markets and supermarkets, the kerabu of yore was birthed based on ingredients endemic to different regions like seaweed, papaya flowers and mengkudung leaves, among a smorgasbord of others.
With the passage of time, sadly many of these recipes are slowly but surely dying out.
Like kerabu umbut kelapa, for instance, a creamy kerabu recipe that incorporates the use of coconut shoots, which are typically obtained only once a coconut tree has been felled.
“In the old days, coconut trees in the villages were cut down when people wanted to extend their homes and the coconut tree was in the way. Then they would make kerabu umbut kelapa, and the entire village would come and eat it,” says Dr Noriza Ishak, a senior lecturer at UiTM also involved in the cookbook.
Noriza grew up in Kedah where this particular kerabu recipe was popular in the kampungs. But these days, she says fewer people are making it because it is a hard ingredient to find. Worse, the people who are still making it are replacing the sweet, tender coconut shoot with the more fibrous, bitter palm shoot instead as it is easier to obtain.
“I used to be able to find umbut kelapa in the wholesale markets in Klang but now many of the new market vendors don’t have any ties with the villagers, so I don’t see it anymore,” she says sadly.
The same can be said about kerabu bunga betik, which uses fresh papaya flowers. What is unique about these papaya flowers is that they need to be obtained from the male of the species, which produces papaya flowers that grow in tubular clusters.
Interestingly, male papaya trees cannot bear fruit so the female papaya trees (which do bear fruit) are the ones that are grown on a more commercial scale, which is why it is difficult to find the flowers anywhere except kampungs, where it is typically grown in back gardens.
“I got this recipe from my kampung in Perak. When I was growing up, we ate this kerabu whenever there were flowers on the tree,” says Alina Shuhaida, a senior lecturer at UiTM.
While the kerabu has delicious nutty, coconut-infused overtures, it is hard to get past the extreme bitterness of the papaya flowers, another factor that Alina says has hindered people from making this heritage recipe.
“It’s bitter and hard to find and so many people are not even inheriting the recipe for this. Even I don’t make it at home because my daughters won’t eat it. So it’s a recipe that is fading out, especially among city-dwellers,” she says.
While many kerabu recipes incorporate vegetables, other recipes seek out fruits, like the kerabu nangka telur masin, which features a lively interplay of young jackfruit interspersed against diced-up salted egg.
“I got this recipe from my grandmother. It’s quite rare but people of Minangkabau origin might know how to make it.
“The uniqueness of this dish is in the salted egg incorporated into the meal as well as the coconut milk, which is boiled first before being added to the kerabu,” says Dr Mohd Shazali Md Sharif, the head of UiTM’s centre of culinary arts and gastronomy management.
Then there are kerabu recipes that rope in lesser-used animal parts. Like kerabu lidah lembu taugeh, for example. This is a delicious recipe that imbibes fresh, crunchy beansprouts as well as ox tongue, a notoriously tough part of the cow.
“Basically, this is from the kampungs in the east coast of Malaysia. Those days, every part of the beef was used, including the ox tongue. So to make this, you have to boil the ox tongue rigorously to tenderise it then grill it on an open fire, to have that charcoal smell that will whet your appetite,” says Ali, who is a dab hand at making this dish.
These days, Ali says it is near impossible to track down this elusive kerabu, as most people do not want the hassle of having to cook the tongue until it is malleable, which can take up to three hours!
“This kerabu ox tongue has become very exotic and it’s very difficult to find unless there is a special occasion, but you probably won’t even be able to find it during Ramadan,” says Ali.
Ultimately, the faculty members who collaborated on the cookbook all agree that these kerabu recipes are slowly become rarer and rarer, with some altogether forgotten and extinct.
“I think the older generation take for granted that these recipes can be passed down but somewhere along the way, it’s not been passed down and it’s been lost. I think it’s happening more now,” says Ali.