It is a disheartening but inescapable truth that these days, most family recipes do not get passed down. While oral tradition and observation used to prevail as a method of learning, most urbanites now hardly ever cross the thresholds of their kitchens – at least not enough to learn how to make heirloom recipes.

According to a 2013 study by UiTM titled ‘The effects of transmission of Malay daily food knowledge on the generation practices’, Malay heritage recipes have been heavily affected by the trappings of modernity.

The study, which looked at mothers in their 50s to 70s and their daughters in their 20s to 40s, found that many members of the younger generation eschewed traditional Malay food in favour of convenient, easy-to-prepare meals.

Thankfully, there are still people out there dedicated to sharing recipes with receptive family members, which in turn, will ensure that these recipes survive the travails of time.

Keeping it in the family
There is a flurry of activity in 69-year-old Siti Zaleha Md Nor’s family home. Her grandchildren have come to visit and there is a recurring symphony of little feet running around the house. In the living room, Siti’s husband Abdul Syukor is entertaining a family friend who has popped in.

In the heart of the home – Siti’s sprawling, spacious kitchen – the bubbly matriarch herself is bent over the stove, carefully stirring an assortment of ingredients. Huddled beside her is her beautiful daughter-in-law Fiona Noor Aishah, 36.

Aishah never used to like Johor food until she tried Siti’s food. Now she watches her mother-in-law to learn how she makes all her heirloom dishes. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“Mak, so when you cook this, you have to keep stirring it slowly, is it?” asks Aishah, as she is better known.

“Yes, then all the flavours will come together,” responds Siti Zaleha, never taking her eyes off the pot.

In many ways, this charming scene is reflective of just what a good job Siti has done of converting the Kelantanese Aishah into a lover of the traditional Johor food she makes.

“That’s true, I didn’t like Johor food until I tried my mother-in-law’s food,” agrees Aishah.

Interestingly, Siti herself is not from Johor – her mother is from Selangor and her father is from Negeri Sembilan, so she grew up learning the traditional foods of those states, like rendang Minang and Selangor-style masak lemak kuning, as well as various other dishes that her talented mother picked up along the way.

A talented home cook, Siti (centre) is slowly but surely passing on the recipes that she has perfected to her daughter-in-law Aisyah, left and daughter Syefa, right. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“My mother was very possessive of her kitchen so she would only let me watch and help clean up. It was only much later that she allowed me to cook.

“My father would say, ‘Don’t let her fry things, she might get oil on her face, then no one will want her’. And my mother would say, ‘If she doesn’t know how to cook, it’s worse. Nobody will want her because of that’,” recalls Siti, laughing heartily.

The bubbly Siti learnt how to cook from her mother and now often cooks for the 18 people in her large family, including in-laws’ and grandchildren.

From the very beginning, Siti found that she loved cooking – a good thing as her mother grew to depend on her to help cook family meals for Siti’s nine siblings, a familial routine that made a huge impact on young Siti’s life.

“I started compiling my mother’s recipes from young. I suppose even then I was thinking that when I have my own family, I want to cook for them too,” she says.

When she started dating her husband, family lore is that the first time she cooked for him and his friends, he was so impressed with her food that he proposed straight away!

“I was telling myself I must have passed the test, because he asked me to marry him that night!” says Siti, as an abashed Syukor denies such an incident.

In any case, after her marriage to the Johor born-and-bred Syukor, Siti began learning how to make authentic Johor food like laksa Johor and mee bandung from Syukor’s sister.

“I watched her and always made sure I was there when she was putting certain ingredients in, so I roughly knew what was in the dishes,” she says.

Siti’s inherited recipes have been adapted slightly to create what she calls “revolutionised Johor food” which is much-loved by the entire family – from her husband down to her six children and grandchildren.

Her version of laksa Johor is delightful and underscored by a punchy sambal and a thick gravy with fish-laden undertones. Her mee bandung is also very good and is a flavour-packed meal designed to elicit joy.

These days, Siti is invested in ensuring that her daughters and daughter-in-law learn the family recipes – even if they have to stand right next to her and watch how she does it.

“We come here once or twice a week and my mother-in-law cooks these meals, so that’s when we watch her. Because she’s not very good at recounting the recipes properly, we just have to watch,” says Aishah, who is slowly learning how to make traditional Johor food like laksa Johor.

Siti’s daughter Nur Syefa Abdul Shukor, 41, is also a fan of her mother’s traditional Johor dishes and is picking them up.

“She always nags us and says, ‘You guys have to learn these dishes, because when I’m not around, who is going to cook it when you want to eat it?’” she says.

But perhaps the biggest testament to the quality of Siti’s food comes from her husband.

“I think my dad is so used to how my mum cooks stuff that when anyone else makes it, it’s not as good. I remember my late aunt used to say, ‘Oh, now that your wife cooks for you, you don’t want my food anymore,” says Syefa, laughing.


Serves 8 to 10

oil, for frying
15 shallots, blended
8 cloves garlic, blended
100-150g dried prawns, blended
4 tbsp chilli paste
350g beef, sliced
2 litre water
1-1 1/2 cup tomato sauce
8 stalks mustard greens (sawi)
5 pieces beancurd, each cut into 6
4 tomatoes, quartered
600g yellow mee, rinsed and drained
5 eggs
dash of pepper
salt to taste

In a large pot, heat oil, fry blended ingredients. Add chilli paste and sliced beef and stir. Add water, tomato sauce, sawi (stalks only), beancurd and tomatoes and stir to combine.
Add the mee, break eggs into different parts of the pot and let it cook. Add sawi leaves and cook until a little wilted, then season with pepper and salt. Serve hot.

Serves 8 to 10

500g spaghetti
600g ikan kembung
5cm ginger, blended finely
5cm galangal, blended finely
15 shallots, blended finely
8 cloves garlic, blended finely
6-7 tbsp fish curry powder
150g dried prawns, soaked and blended
coconut milk from 1 ½ coconuts
6 stalks lemongrass, crushed
kerisik (toasted, grated coconut) from 1 coconut
4 pieces asam keping
2-3 tbsp chilli paste (optional)

Vegetables to go with laksa
10 long beans, sliced at 1cm lengths
1 big cucumber, hollow removed and sliced
2 big red onions, thinly sliced into rings
500g beansprouts
a handful of daun kesom, finely chopped
a handful of daun selasih, finely chopped

Sambal belacan (to blend together)
1 ½ inch toasted belacan
10-12 red chillies
2-3 limau kasturi

Boil spaghetti and drain well. Set aside. Boil fish with enough water to cover it, and add a piece of ginger. Set aside fish stock. Drain, debone and blend the fish.
Heat up some oil and fry blended ingredients, curry powder, fish, dried prawns, coconut milk, kerisik, asam keping and coconut milk. Boil until the mixture is a little thick.
Serve with spaghetti, sambal belacan and raw vegetables.

Mother-daughter-in-law culinary connection
In her cheery, sun-kissed kitchen, sweet-natured Zainon Johari, 70 is working in unison with her daughter-in-law Hasniza Hussin, 40. As Zainon fries meat, Hasniza slices chillies, the two working seamlessly together as they chat happily away.

Since she married into the family, Hasniza has worked hard to pick up Zainon’s wide repertoire of recipes, gleaned from a lifetime of cooking.
As a child, Zainon learnt how to make authentic Johor food from her mother.

Zainon learnt how to cook from her mother and after she got married, she learnt all her mother-in-law’s heritage recipes too. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“I grew up in Johor and learnt how to cook by watching my mother. My mother could cook for very large groups of people and used to make dishes like laksa Johor and mee siam, which she was famous for,” recalls Zainon, chuckling.

As Zainon got older, her mother slowly passed the cooking baton to her – a task she was thrilled to get!

“When we reached a certain age – no matter how high we had studied – there were chores for us to do. My eldest sister didn’t like being in the kitchen, so I got assigned the kitchen and loved it!” she says.

After marrying her husband, the jovial Dr Ahmad Ezanee Mansor, Zainon started spending a lot of time in the kitchen with her Kelantanese mother-in-law.

Although Zainon (right) learnt how to cook from watching her elders, she has now written down her recipes so that it is easier for Hasniza (left) to follow them. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“My husband left Kota Bharu when he was six, because his father was a civil servant who got transferred all over the country. And my mother-in-law picked up recipes from each state and because I like being in the kitchen, I made it a point to learn how chik (a term of endearment in Kelantan) made everything by watching her.

“I am happy that she shared her recipes with me. Because even though she is not around anymore, her legacy is with us,” she says.

One of the recipes that Zainon’s mother-in-law passed down to her is her delicious daging tok chik, a beef stir-fry dish that is simple but incredibly tasty.

“That recipe is from my mother-in-law – she never told me the name of that dish, so we call it daging tok chik, because that is what my children called her. So now this recipe has gone down to my daughter-in-law,” says Zainon.

Zainon’s fiery, flavour-packed ikan bawal kerutuk is a recipe she inherited from her mother that she still makes to this day, although not as often as her husband Ahmad can’t eat very spicy food.

“I get pimples when I eat spicy food. Seventy years old and still getting pimples, can you believe it?” he jokes.

Then there is the family’s devilishly good, royal-style banana pudding, a recipe which Zainon’s mother-in-law got from legendary actress Maria Menado (popular in Malay movies in the 1950s and 1960s), who was the consort of the late Sultan Abu Bakar of Pahang.

“When my father-in-law was posted to Kuantan, Pahang, at the time, the Sultan of Pahang was Sultan Abu Bakar and Maria Menado was his consort so my mother-in-law befriended them and she learnt this recipe her,” says Zainon.

Zainon says it is important to her that Hasnizah learns the family recipes as this is the only way the recipes will be passed down through the generations.

To ensure this happens, she has even changed the way she transmits the recipes. Instead of having Hasnizah watch her, the way she did with her mother-in-law, Zainon has measured and weighed all the ingredients for her dishes. Then, she sends her recipes to Hasnizah via WhatsApp!

“My story and mama’s story is totally opposite, I ask for the recipes and she WhatsApps it to me. Then I get all the ingredients and try it at home and if something is wrong, I ask again. Sometimes even if you follow the recipe exactly, it won’t turn out the same,” says Hasniza, laughing.

Ultimately, Hasniza says she is equally determined to learn from her mother-in-law’s vast culinary experience as her recipes are tried-and-trusted.

“My husband enjoys his mother’s food, so it’s better that I learn from mama – the real source. She has proven that her food is delicious, so I just follow lah,” she says, laughing.

To which, a beaming Zainon adds “I’m happy that my children like what I cook.”

Serves 4

500g beef sirloin
2-3 tbsp ghee
2 big onions
2 red chillies
salt to taste
a pinch of turmeric powder

Cut meat into medium thin strips. Add salt and turmeric powder, keep aside for about 10 minutes.
Heat pan. Arrange meat on pan. When half cooked, turn over. Let meat get dry and nicely browned. Then, add ghee. Add onions and chillies, season with salt and some turmeric powder and serve hot with rice.

Serves 4

For blending together
1.2cm galangal
6 small shallots
4 garlic cloves
2 buah keras
a little bit of turmeric powder

For cooking
1 cup blended dried chillies
2 medium bawal fish, fried
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 stalks lemongrass, crushed
salt to taste
brown sugar to taste

Blend ingredients for blending together and set aside.
Add oil in kuali. Fry blended chillies and blended galangal, shallots, garlic, buah keras and turmeric powder for 5-10 minutes.
Add in crushed lemongras and coconut milk and let simmer for awhile.
Add in fish and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve hot with rice.

Serves 5 to 6

1 comb banana (pisang raja or pisang mas), cut on the diagonal
1 tin evaporated milk
granulated sugar, for sprinkling on banana
1-2 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup cashew nuts, fried
1/2 cup prunes, steamed

Fry bananas until caramelised and put in a casserole dish, then sprinkle granulated sugar over it and cover. Repeat with all the bananas.
Heat evaporated milk and add vanilla essence; heat for awhile but do not let mixture boil.
Pour milk over bananas in casserole. Spread cashew nuts and prunes on top.

Note: This article was first published in Star2.

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