Food – Salve Of The Soul

Nasi Ambeng
Nasi Ambeng is a favourite amongst the Javanese community in Malaysia

MY wife is a Johorean – well, half-Johorean.  Her mother is from Kuching, Sarawak. So, when it comes to what is good as food, I trust her judgment.

Why am I writing about food this time? I see a lot of unhappy news lately and I think food is what makes us all happy.

I was brought up eating Johor-style cooking; with the cabbage, or bean curd and beansprouts in masak lemak putih, asam pedas, soto and lontong with kuah lodeh (lontong actually refers to the compressed rice, and not the whole dish).

I was picky when it came to food but going to the Malay College broadened my culinary horizon – Kuala Kangsar gave me Mi Bandung at Restoran Zabdi, Laksa Perak by our Makcik Canteen, Masak Lemak Kuning, Gulai Otak Lembu by the riverside, and not to mention the ulat-filled sayur bayam and stir-fried long beans from the dining hall.

My wife and I were once upon a time both married to spouses from Kedah. My love for curry is because of Kedah’s Gulai Kawah Daging cooked using either the Serbuk Kari Chap ‘O’ or Serbuk Kari Chap Tarbus. The owner of Serbuk Kari Chap ‘O’ drove a car bearing the registration number KAR 10.

I love the Nasi Lemak Kuning which is now more famously represented by Nasi Lemak Royale with the Daging Masak Hitam (it’s Nasi Kandar by the way, and tastes nothing like the Nasi Lemak).

For laksa I would drive to Kuala Kedah for the famous Laksa Teluk Kechai.  Not forgetting the Peknga Nyioq Gulai Ikan Termenung (Coconut Pancake dunked in Indian Mackerel Curry) and Pulut Sambal.

Try having lunch at Restoran Sri Pumpung, my all-time favourite lunch spot.  Top that with an ice-cold glass of Nira Nipah (Nipa palm sap) and your day is made.

Despite all the good food, my wife and I agree on one thing – Hari Raya in Kedah for us non-Kedahan was an omen for both our marriages.

Hari Raya for me means lemang, nasi impit, rendang, dodol, lempuk durianaccompanied by barrels of ice-cold soda. For my wife her Hari Raya food means Nasi Bariyani Gam, Laksa Johor, Mi Rebus, Lontong with Kuah Lodeh, assorted cakes, and endless flow of lamnet (soda water – a Malay contraction of the word lemonade – which is used to describe soda).

In Kedah back in the 1980s and 1990s, Hari Raya was ketupat palas (either plain, or with beans, or with corn) served with serunding (meat floss – not to be confused with the Indonesian serunding which is spicy fried coconut flakes), and squash (cordial drink, if you must).  And no matter which house you visit, they would serve you ketupat palas with serunding. And maybe cookies and mini-popiah or mini-karipap filled with serunding.

Only some houses would serve you something different – bihun goreng or the neither-here-nor-there Mi Kuah.

I cannot make out what the Mi Kuah is all about. Yellow noodles in pale-colour spicy but salty gravy.  And while the kids all ventured out to collect duit raya, the adults would flock in front of the television set watching either some Hari Raya concert or a Hindustani movie.

I always ended up with a bad bout of constipation. Little wonder our marriages to Kedahans did not last.

So, Hari Raya for us now depends on whose in-laws’ house we are at: hers or mine.  If it is at her in-laws’ place, then we’d be feasting on Nasi Impit, Lemang, assortment of Rendang, Laksa, Mi Rebus, Satay, Nasi Minyak; and if it is at my in-laws’ place it’s Lontong with Kuah Lodeh, Laksa Sarawak, Mi Kolok, Bubur Pedas Sarawak, Laksa Johor, Soto, Nasi Lemak with Spicy Beancurd Soup, Nasi Bariyani Gam, Mi Bandung.

Do you know it’s blasphemous to eat your Laksa Johor with fork and spoon? Laksa Johor is supposed to be eaten with the hand, just so you know!

If you drive into the kampungs to visit during Hari Raya, you would be served with Nasi Ambeng, Burasak, whatever meat in Masak Ungkep style.  Not forgetting the Tiwol with Sambal Bawang, Rempeyek, Kerepek, Kuih Ros, Kuih Deram.

And it is in these kampungs in Johor that I get my dose of excellent Mi Bandung, Nasi Goreng Daging, Mi Rebus Johor, Pepes Ayam (similar to Otak-Otak but is made of chicken instead of fish), ABC Degan (Javanese for coconut).

If you visit the houses of the aristocrats down in Johor Bahru, you’d get to sample the rarely-made Harissa which is a concoction of either tenderised beef or lamb meat cooked with oats for three hours, and is served with sambal and honey.  Not many Johoreans have tasted the Harissa.

Before the Kedahans slam me, remember that I said (apart from Hari Raya) Kedah food is excellent too.  In the early 1990s I would frequent the Nats (morning markets or called Pasar Tani elsewhere) and the Pasar Malam – Tuesdays in Kepala Batas, Wednesdays in Changlun, Thursdays in Tanah Merah, Fridays in Napoh and Sundays in Pekan Jitra. The locals call it PJ.  Coincidentally, PJ is right next to KL– Kubang Lembu.

It was at the Pasar Malam that I would get my supply of fresh meat and Ikan Kembung, and my favourite Kuey Teow Kerang.

A whole plate of Ikan Kembung cost RM2 a plateful. The eyes and skin were shining, gills pink.

Imagine the bitterness I felt when I was transferred to Kuala Lumpur and the Ikan Kembung had to be weighed before it was sold, red sunken eyes, darkened gills, slimy with strong fishy odour.  And costs a lot more than in Kedah, too!

So, no matter where you are, food soothes the soul.

And in times like this, if you feel down, just Google what you want to eat, Waze for the place, and make your day.

I promise you, you will end your day feeling much better.

(This article was first published by The Mole)

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