In mainstream media these days, Malay cuisine has had a bad rep. It seems all the evidence—from social media posts by fitness enthusiasts to official documentation from the Health Promotion Board—points to the same conclusion: all that oil, coconut milk and sugar can’t be healthy. The misconception stems from a gross generalisation of Malay food.

Well, Khir Johari is here to change that perception.

With The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through the Archipelago, the food historian and now author has written perhaps the most comprehensive book on Malay cuisine in English.

The 624-pager traces its roots from predecessors throughout the region, meticulously documenting the names, tools and techniques that are in danger of extinction.

Marshall Cavendish International published and launched the book last November, and its first run of 1,000 copies sold out within five days. A second print run will be available this March.

On a Mission

The Food of Singapore Malays originated in California where Khir taught high school mathematics for six years, while spending weekends at the now-defunct Black Oak Books at Berkeley.

There, he found books written by British scholars, Richard Olaf Winstedt and Richard James Wilkinson, who both had extensive knowledge on 20th century British Malaya.

Windstedt’s book, The History of Malaya, and Wilkinson’s Life and Customs Part 1: The Incidents of Malay Life were merely the tip of the iceberg.

To fill in the gaps and cross-references, he pored over travelogues, memoirs, hikayat (fictional stories based on historical Malay events) and Malay manuscripts from as far back as the 19th century, sometimes requiring the help of translators.

Laksa Singapura.
Laksa Singapura.

Later, he travelled to the Malay archipelago to source ingredients that were harvested and prepared in traditional ways, and then photographed by Law Soo Phye for his book.

”To preserve, you must document. To document, you need to reconstruct,” Khir says. Using Singapore as his base, he also visited Medan, the Riau Islands, and Selangor, Malaysia. On occasion, lady luck would intervene.

His search for the kawah, an enormous cast iron wok he had only seen in Bali, led him to a wedding in Kuala Selangor. On this occasion, he managed to photograph the kawah, raised on iron legs over a wood fire, as a smartly-dressed man with a towel around his neck stirred it with a large wooden paddle.

Khir Johari.
Khir Johari.

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Tracing His Roots

Khir, who is of Javanese descent, grew up in the iconic Gedung Kuning or Yellow Mansion in Kampong Gelam—now called Kampong Glam—where he immersed himself in the rich food and culture of the Malay Muslim community in the 1960s and 1970s.

His upbringing compels him to understand history through the evolution of food. While in California in the noughties, he started something similar to a culinary club, the first in Silicon Valley, where he organised trips to the Persian market or an Ethiopian restaurant’s kitchen.

When he returned home in late 2007, he joined the Singapore Heritage Society and became its vice president, as well as organised heritage trails in Kampong Gelam.

An array of popular sambals.
An array of popular sambals.

The time spent away from home, in a country with immigrants from all over the world, made him curious about his roots. “In my campus, there were 148 different languages spoken, so my classroom was like a mini-United Nations.”

In a series of over 400 photographs and 32 recipes, Khir uses his innate fascination for etymology and genealogy to examine indigenous practices such as foraging and food preservation.

All this groundwork stems from a desire to understand the Malay cuisine as a part of Singapore’s South-east Asian history. The book’s final chapter—Food and the Politics of Identity—focusses on the significance of a “mother culture [as] a common denominator” among countries in the region, emphasising the city-state’s geographic advantage as a port even before the British did.

For example, the fermented shrimp paste used in Malay food, and called terasi or belachan, is also found in food from Thailand, where it is called ka-pi, and Myanmar (ngapi).

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The Inspiration

Claudia Roden is one author he admires, so it’s not surprising that he names her as one of his favourites.

The Egyptian-born British writer of Sephardi ethnicity, wrote The Book of Middle Eastern Food, widely regarded as an instrument for introducing the Western world to Egypt and the Middle East. She revisits the politically charged history of the Jewish community in Egypt through recipes and the social meaning attached to them.

Berkarang at low tide.
Berkarang at low tide.

In many ways, Khir’s philosophy about French cuisine is similar to that of Roden’s American contemporary, Julia Child. Her generous use of butter and cream in recipes angered critics until her later years when she refused to compromise on the taste of her dishes.

“Her philosophy of food and food creation is much like my approach to explaining Malay food,” he says.

As with Child, he doesn’t believe in substituting coconut milk or cream in recipes. Khir gives coconut milk or santan, a staple in Malay cuisine, the attention it deserves despite its high-fat content. His book describes the 11 stages of the drupe’s development, from nyiur ingusan (meaning mucous-like) to nyiur gigi belalang (meaning grasshopper’s teeth). Freshly squeezed santan, he claims, is still the best.

Stirring dodol.
Stirring dodol.

Khir has found, after years of testing recipes for his book, that although technology has made it easier to duplicate laborious processes, nothing can replace the traditional way of doing things.

He considers Che’gu Asfiah, a largely unknown author and cook in Singapore, who compiled a collection of classic Malay recipes, an invaluable source of information. She’s just one of many elders he honours as “custodians of knowledge” in the book.

A week after speaking to a grandmother about her method of preparation for taro, Khir learned that she had passed away. Feeling the sting of time, his next project—a proper cookbook to accompany The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through the Archipelago—is already underway.

Thirty-two recipes, after all, are wholly insufficient to showcase the breadth and depth of Malay cuisine. He also intends to test and translate Che’gu Asfiah’s Malay recipes. Hopefully, those unfamiliar with it will learn that santan and fried food aren’t all there is to the cuisine.

(Related: 3 Aussie-style cafes in Singapore for wholesome meals)

Photos: Khir Johari