School holidays meant working with either her mother or father. Then 10, Mashrifah Ravendran chose what she thought was the lesser of two evils: helping her mother in the kitchen. Helping her father would have meant hard labour on the farm.
As it turned out, all the peeling, pounding, grating, and cutting of ingredients required to prepare food for a family of 14, and sometimes guests too, was hard labour.
Strangely, it didn’t put her off venturing into the kitchen.
“I realised that I have a knack for cooking and helping my mother didn’t feel like a chore. It was something that I looked forward to,” she says.
Mas’ love for cooking has survived, and she now organises monthly feasts at her home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. She is in her element when cooking for her loved ones, and on top of her must-do list is laksa Johor.
“Guests tell me not to bother preparing anything else; that they are attending the feast only for my laksa Johor but, of course, I don’t see them refusing my nasi lemak, ayam masak merah, rendang or kuih muih,” she says with a laugh.
Perfecting laksa Johor didn’t come easily for the Batu Pahat, Johor, native, whose mother unfortunately subscribed to the frustrating agak-agak (guessing) method.
“My mother made excellent laksa Johor but was terrible at telling me how to recreate the dish.
“She told me all the ingredients that I should use for the laksa, but never how much!” says Mas.
That didn’t stop her from figuring it out. She managed to create her best laksa Johor after much trial and error.
“I didn’t give up. I kept trying and knew I hit the jackpot when my mother tasted my laksa Johor and told me that I finally got it. I was 19 then.”
However, the one thing that Mas has yet to figure out is why laksa Johor uses spaghetti instead of rice or yellow noodles like its Penang, Malacca and Sarawak cousins. The unofficial story is that one of the Permaisuri Johor was a foreigner, who inspired the marriage of pasta with the local dish.
“Johoreans have been using spaghetti for laksa for as long as anyone remembers, and I have no idea how my grandmother or even my mother got their hands on the pasta back then,” says Mas.
The cook tries to keep to tradition as closely as possible and doesn’t believe in cutting corners, especially when making sambal for nasi lemak. She still pounds the chillies using a mortar and pestle.
“It takes a longer time to make the sambal but the effort is sure worth it – you can’t get the same taste using a blender. Sometimes, you just have to do things the old school way to get the best taste.”
Convenience, however, trumps original taste when it comes to making sambal goreng Jawa, a Javanese dish that Mas learned from her mother who is of Ponorogo descent from West Java in Indonesia.
“She used to make the tempeh from scratch, and it took days to get it done. I just get mine from the stores,” Mas says with a laugh.
But one recipe she doesn’t alter is the ayam masak merah.
“Usually, kerisik is used to give texture and taste to rendang and my mother figured that it would do the same for this dish. I do the same, and that’s why my ayam masak merah is unlike the usual ones. It is spicier and has a coarser texture,” she says.
The homemaker’s two teenage daughters are lucky because Mas has written down the recipes for her laksa Johor, as well as other dishes, for their reference. Her eldest daughter’s attempt at making the laksa gets a thumbs up from the proud mother.
“At least they don’t have to spend months trying to figure out how to make the dishes like I did,” she says. “I also want them to pass the recipes down to future generations, and perhaps even publish a cookbook.”
AYAM MASAK MERAH
1 chicken, cut into small pieces
3 tbsp turmeric powder
salt, to taste
oil, to deep fry
6 garlic cloves
5 tbsp oil
2 tbsp chilli powder
2 tbsp chilli sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 lemongrass, bruised
sugar and salt, to taste
kerisik of half a coconut
2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
Marinate the chicken with turmeric and salt. Set aside for 30 minutes.
Heat oil in a wok or deep pot on medium heat and deep fry the chicken.
Remove to drain on paper towels or wire rack.
Heat 5 tbsp oil in a wok on medium heat. Fry the wet paste until fragrant.
Add chilli powder, chilli sauce, oyster sauce and lemongrass.
Season with salt and sugar. Add the kerisik and mix well. Add in the fried chicken and kaffir lime leaves.
Mix well before turning off the heat. Serve with rice.
500g spaghetti, cooked to packet instructions and twisted into a figure “8”
1kg mackerel, steamed (keep the fish stock)
1/2 kg prawn, steamed
Wet paste, grind together
2 tbsp chilli powder
2 lemongrass, bruised
3 cups coconut milk
4 asam keping (tamarind peel)
salt and sugar to taste
For sambal belacan, pound together
5 red chillies
5cm piece belacan
sugar, to taste
1 large cucumber
1 seng kwang (yam bean/jicama), thinly sliced and cut into long, spaghetti-like sticks
10 calamansi limes, halved
Peel the cucumber and cut into three or four sections. Cut each section in a circular motion from outer layer towards the core. Roll and slice thinly to create cucumber spirals (watch the video below to see how)
Flake the fish. Peel and devein the prawns.
Using a blender, blend the fish and prawn together. Add the fish stock. Blend until fine.
Heat oil in a deep pot. When the oil is hot enough, saute the wet paste until fragrant.
Add chilli powder and lemongrass. Mix well and cook for 2 minutes.
Add coconut milk, and let it come to a simmer. Add asam keping.
Season with salt and sugar. Reduce the heat to low.
Simmer until the gravy thickens before turning off the heat.
Place spaghetti in soup plates and pour the gravy on top. Add cucumber and yam bean on the side.
Serve with a squeeze of calamansi lime juice and sambal belacan.
SAMBAL GORENG JAWA
oil for frying
2 tempeh blocks, cut into cubes
2 hard tofu, cut into cubes
1 sweet potato, cut into cubes
Wet paste, blended
2 tbsp dried shrimps
3 onions, sliced
3 cloves garlic
3 green chillies, sliced
3 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp water
3 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kicap manis)
salt, to taste
Heat oil in a wok. When oil is hot, fry the tempeh, tofu and sweet potato until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.
In a pan, heat 3 tbsp oil and saute the wet spice until fragrant.
Add chillies and lemongrass. Mix well and cook for 2 minutes. Add water, sweet sauce and salt.
Then add the fried tempeh, tofu and sweet potato. Mix well before turning off the heat.
Serve hot with rice.