Photography by Azimin Saini
One of the best parts of running Singapore Noodles is getting to pick the brains of the most food-obsessed, passionate and knowledgeable people and sharing their perspectives. Though Singapore is a multiracial country, how much does the majority of us Chinese actually know about the cultures of our Indian, Eurasian, Peranakan or Malay friends? This interview that I did with Azimin Saini, editor of Lifestyle Asia, truly opened my eyes to a whole side of Malay food culture that you wouldn’t get to see if you’ve never stepped into or lived in a Malay household, and got me surprisingly emotional towards the end. Read on to find out more.
One of the major characteristics of Malay food is… that it’s very much tied to the land. You don’t see it as much here because Singapore is an urbanised area but many Malay families have long grown their own herbs at home. This isn’t some movement into urban gardening but out of sheer necessity — the herbs we use aren’t always available in the nearest supermarket. When’s the last time anyone saw torch ginger blossom in Fairprice really? Then things like turmeric leaf can only be found in wet markets.
Some defining techniques that Malays use in their cooking are… rempah making – blending the mirepoix and taming the explosive flavours of Southeast Asia into a harmonious whole. Other techniques range from low-and-slow braising to tenderise red meats to fermenting, as seen in the making of belachan and tempeh.
The beauty of Malay culture is… that it’s a sponge and absorbs influences from near and far to make it its own. This doesn’t start and stop at food but everything from religion to language. It’s one that’s cosmopolitan before cosmopolitanism became a thing. The Malay language today is a beautiful tapestry of indigenous words and sentence structures used alongside Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, English and a smattering from the various Chinese languages. This region has long played a massive role in maritime trade especially prior to colonisation and that has led to the many influences we have in food.
The direct result of trade and the region’s unique geographical position has led to… the use of ingredients like chillies, tomatoes, potatoes, and some spices which are not indigenous to our region. The present day Singaporean Malay dining table at home has everything from vegetable stir fries where we use oyster sauce and soy sauce, to meaty stews where potatoes share a thin, clear broth with spices and then topped with bawang goreng (deep fried shallots). It’s a little bit of everything really.
The most obvious way religion informs Malay food culture… is with the arrival of Islam in the region and pork was removed from our diets. Prior to that when this region was Buddhist and Hindu, vegetarianism was very much de rigeur. That’s why you’d see ingredients like tempeh and young jackfruit being meat replacements in many dishes.
I started being interested in food when… I was living in Australia where I started growing my own herbs to make pasta. I was in my 20s then. I’m 34 this year and I’ve been writing about food for 10 years now. To say that being interested in Western food as a phase is a major understatement — It actually was ALL I knew, embarrassingly enough.
My career began in The Peak where I was the resident food writer dining out at some of Singapore’s best restaurants every other day. I was far more proficient in the Western and Japanese culinary arts than I was my own. I’ve done everything from going truffle hunting to seeing how wasabi is grown and harvested right down to the tuna auctions of Tsukiji market and yet my own culinary culture was a question mark.
My awakening only happened when I was living in KL two years ago for work and I was exposed to the diversity of Malay cuisines throughout all the states of Malaysia and each is unique in its own way. I contrasted that with my own Javanese heritage which in itself is the cultural powerhouse in maritime Southeast Asia and found that there’s so much I don’t know.
What followed is a massive buying spree of books in bahasa and even though I’m not terribly good speaking, writing and reading Malay, I had to roll up my sleeves and wade through because there’s so much out there that’s not translated. It’s tough trying to access this massive body of information if you don’t speak or read Bahasa to be honest!
The fact that Malay food isn’t as well-represented or understood as Chinese food in Singapore has to do with… the Malay community being a minority community and thus doesn’t get the widespread understanding as would Chinese cuisine. That’s just how it is. Even right now, a lot of Malay dishes are being seen as Peranakan, which is odd because Malay cuisine is the cultural mother. I think much of it is because a lot of Singaporeans haven’t truly explored Malay cuisine in greater detail but are now delving into the richness of Peranakan culture and the first time they might encounter a certain dish that’s also in the Malay culinary cannon is on a Peranakan menu.
That said, even the Malay community in Singapore is not able to give a diverse representation of Malay food, because the term “Malay” is an abstract colonial one that would encompass a region with a 300 million strong population. In Indonesia, Malay would be a very specific ethnic group, while in Singapore that would encompass the Javanese community like me. There is immense diversity from the Malays of Southern Thailand to Southern Philippines and not forgetting the thousands of islands in Indonesia alone and the powerhouses of Sumatra and Java.
So what we get in Singapore is really just the tiny tip of the massive iceberg, made even smaller because what you see available commercially is only a tiny representation of what we have at home.
The main casualty of globalization and the modern pace of life would be… the loss of ulam in our diets. These are native, often foraged greens eaten raw like a salad and have a central place on the dining table. That’s all gone here. You can still get some from Geylang Serai market and at Malay wet market stalls dotted around the island but certainly not in the variety that my parents would bemoan they used to have. It’s still very much preserved in Malaysia and Indonesia though so when I was living in KL my plate was fresh and teeming with raw greens which I loved.
Second would be the lack of time to properly prepare time consuming dishes. This is of course not unique to Malay food culture per se, but a great deal of the dishes require long braising, to bring the wild disparate flavours of our land into harmony.
Some dishes that I wish more Singaporeans knew about include… Laksa Siglap, and yes in that spelling as it’s in Malay (would you call Nasi Lemak, Lemak Nasi?), rawon, which is a Javanese beef dish stew made using buah keluak and the fact that there are 300 different types of sambals enjoyed all across the region. Sambal is to us what kimchi is to the Koreans and most only know sambal belachan. Other widely available sambals in Singapore are sambal tumis, sambal belado, sambal hijau.
Hari Raya is a time of… love and atonement, though it might seem like a happy occasion. Yes it marks the end of a month of fasting and that’s certainly joyous but, at its heart, this is when I kneel before my parents and loved ones to ask for forgiveness. It is deeply humbling and strengthens family bonds. Many end up in tears, particularly if you’ve had a traumatic year.
Food-wise, it’s also when every Malay family breaks out the most traditional dishes — the type that would take days to prepare and precisely the sort that preserves our food culture where we can. In my family, ketupat isn’t terribly popular. Instead, we love our lemang and we get ours from an orang asli tribe in JB. These are delicious smoky logs of glutinous rice stuffed into bamboo and cooked next to a woodfire low and slow.
We’d place our order beforehand and dad would drive up to JB to collect them. I’m also my family’s designated rendang maker and we’d start a charcoal fire in the balcony. I would start at 3pm and end around 10 to sometimes 11pm to get the right texture and consistency. It’s back breaking work and I suppose I could easily half the time by using a pressure cooker, but I don’t want to. That is how traditions die and that’s not going to happen under my watch.
In light of COVID-19, this Hari Raya will… be quiet and our Hari Raya dishes won’t be as numerous as we won’t have any visitors. We’d typically make enough to feed an entire village otherwise. I’ll still make my rendang but I guess we’ll have to do without the lemang.