Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Muslim Culinary Heritage

Proofreading this book was hard. I kept losing focus - and getting hungry.

The descriptions of food, ingredients and the chefs who made them kept returning me to my younger days and the nasi kandar I knew as a child in Penang: white rice, half a hard-boiled egg, and a chicken leg or breast, slathered with a spicy brown gravy that had the texture of sawdust.

But the flavours, the aroma, the spice, and the heat! I remember being hooked on it, and eagerly awaiting my father's return from work and the spicy package he'd bring home for himself and those in the family who could take the heat.

From the book: "Classic" nasi kandar which resembles my
childhood memories of it

I haven't had anything like it since arriving in KL about two decades ago. I don't know if it's still there...

Right, the book.

Usually, chefs write cookbooks, while academics write papers. It's perhaps the first time I've seen an academic write a (sort of) cookbook. Not credible? Not if the academic also cooks the food she writes about.

Wazir Jahan Karim, economic anthropologist, Distunguished Fellow and Founder of the Academy of Socio-economic Research and Analysis (ASERA) and Life Fellow of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, is also a Jawi Peranakan, one of the many Indian Muslim communities along the Straits of Malacca.

Heir to her mother's culinary repertoire, Wazir Jahan is also said to host really great dinner parties. It was during one such dinner that a guest, impressed by the food and table setting, suggested that she write and publish something about both.

Pictures from the book: murtabak maker (left) and guy with
sup kambing and roti Benggali

She has delved into the historical, cultural and societal aspects of her family's cuisine and, perhaps, found more than she needed. The result is Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage.

Her book, which took almost a year to finish, was based on favourite hereditary foods from Penang's oldest families. "There are many anecdotes in the book which trace the history and origin of these Muslim heritage foods within families and how they were invariably linked to the spice trade in Southeast Asia from as early as the 14th century," she told the New Straits Times.

From the book, also an old favourite: fried fish roe - delicious, but not healthy

Penang's 18th- and 19th-century Jawi Peranakan and Jawi Pekan communities were mostly English-educated. The women were leaders and educators who also did charity work. Using their unique culinary alchemy, they brought crowds to charity bazaars.

From her impressive CV and bits and pieces from this book, it looks like the author is keeping that tradition going.

She stresses that the book is "not a text on the 'anthropology of food' or 'history of food'", but "a narrative and personal search into Malay and other sub-cultures of Muslim cookery in Penang and to a lesser extent, the northwestern states of Peninsular Malaysia" that "tries to capture, through memory and anecdotes, the kind of plural Muslim culture of food which has emerged in this region."

It's also a huge book, loaded with facts about the Straits Muslim communities and their cuisine - the better to sate hungry minds and whip up appetites for the food itself. The author's own memories of food, family, community and heritage, along with an occasional dash of humour, add a personal touch.

Famished types will salivate at pictures of some of the dishes inside. The cuisine is divided into several categories, including herbs and spices, breads and breakfasts, rice, nasi kandar (so good, it seems, that it has its own category), cakes and puddings, and bridal table spreads.

From simple starters and cakes to complicated stews and curries, there is enough in the book to keep one occupied - whether one really want to try his hand at the recipes, or to reminisce wistfully on a weekend afternoon.

Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage is available at all major bookstores. The book is jointly sponsored by Think City Sdn Bhd, ASERA and the Al-Bukhary Foundation.

Feasts of Penang
Muslim Culinary Heritage

Wazir Jahan Karim
Nurilkarim Razha (culinary editor)
Rashidah Begum Fazal Mohamed (editor)

MPH Group Publishing
307 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-879-8

Buy from Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com


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