If there’s one person who can tell you all about the history of Malay cuisine and culture, it’s Khir Johari — former vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society and respected heritage consultant, speaker and collector of Malay artefacts.
A numbers geek at heart, he holds a mathematics degree from Santa Clara University and a Masters in Education from Stanford University. By day he’s the director of investment management firm Chersonese Capital; by night he’s a researcher and historian who conducts food trails around Kampong Gelam to share his knowledge on Malay heritage with a focus on Malay food ethnology.
“There are three key influences that have shaped the history of Malay cuisine in Singapore. Firstly, our geography defines our food — we eat what is available or accessible. Secondly, the Malays have developed a deep indigenous knowledge of the local flora and fauna over the centuries, resulting in a cuisine that features ingredients sourced directly from the land and sea. Finally, Malay cuisine has been shaped by faith and belief systems,” he elaborates.
One of his nerdier pursuits is documenting oral history and gathering items of material culture, such as antiquarian books and maps, textile and old music recordings. He has also published with Marshall Cavendish his first book The Food of Singapore Malays, a 544-pager which explores the influences of geography, history and cultures on Malay cuisine, together with 40 detailed recipes of traditional Malay dishes.
Born and raised in the historic Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion) in Kampong Gelam, Singapore’s earliest Muslim quarter, Khir is a diehard foodie and consummate cook whose earliest memory of cooking was when he was nine years old to help his grandaunt dry-fry serunding (toasted grated coconut flavoured with spices) for two hours in front of the charcoal stove.
“Food is sustenance and it is something that connects us. I have devoted myself to studying food because I am insatiably curious about why we eat what we eat. It reveals the nature of our identities and helps to uncover our social and cultural history,” he enthuses.
To him, the definition of Singapore Malay cuisine is wholly dependent on where you’re from. “Simply put, Malay food is food that is created, prepared and consumed according to the distinctive cultural norms of Malay peoples regardless of their geographical, national, ethnic and racial origins,” he postulates.
Singapore is home to unique dishes that you will not find outside of the immediate region like mee rebus and mee siam, but more often than not, there are many other dishes that we share in common with our neighbours, he adds.
“Peranakan, Malay, Indian, Indonesian — these different groups of people exist as overlapping categories of ethnicity, race, nationality and culture. The similarities in the foods between these groups are inevitable and reflect our historic connectedness as a region.
“The point to remember is that the key techniques and ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking have remained the same. We are not separate from the rest of the region. In fact, my book argues that Singapore is actually a key culinary hub of the region,” he points out.
In this interview, Khir explains what typical Singapore Malay food is and how it has evolved over the years.
What dish truly personifies Singapore Malay food?
I would say mee rebus best represents Singapore Malay food — a dish that was first created in Singapore before World War II. It was the result of collaboration and experimentation in the 1930s between Javanese immigrants and locals who worked in Rumah Jawa at 51 Sultan Gate, a central kitchen for satay production.
In the midst of preparing satay which was usually sold from the late afternoon into the night, the enterprising cooks sought to diversify their businesses by offering a noodle dish for breakfast until 3pm — hence, mee rebus. The Javanese created the deliciously thick gravy using locally-available ingredients made up of udang geragau (krill), taucheo (salted soy bean) and groundnuts, thickened with mashed sweet potatoes.
How has Malay food evolved in Singapore?
In post-war Singapore and through the 1970s, life was more leisurely. When we cooked, we rarely relied on convenience foods. Taking shortcuts was unheard of — even frowned upon. Today, however, time is at a premium with our busy lifestyles. For example, nasi impit (rice cakes made from compacting cooked rice in moulds) is more often bought pre-cooked than made from scratch now.
Additionally, urbanisation has inevitably led to the loss of much of our natural resources. Previously, you could source papaya flowers from your backyard for kerabu bunga betik (papaya blossom salad) or, if you lived near the sea, you could forage for coastal ingredients such as clams (lala) today.
Also, thanks to globalisation, foreign cuisines have become part of our culinary landscape and something that we gravitate quite naturally towards — sometimes at the expense of our own native cuisine. We don’t realise that what we already have is also valuable — even priceless.
What is your opinion of younger chefs creating ‘elevated Malay cuisine’?
We need to give credit to young Malay chefs for attempting to reignite interest in Malay cuisine by presenting it in a form that they believe today’s customers will embrace.
Nevertheless, like many of the culinary traditions of our region, the time-honoured cultural traditions of Malay food practices and principles have not been codified. They are transmitted by daily ritual and oral communication. When this chain of communication is broken — today, fewer families prepare their own meals, and many rarely eat at home — we don’t develop an understanding of the history and cultural significance of our culinary source material.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not an old-fashioned purist or essentialist. Innovation is key if we want to remain current and relevant. However, there is also something to be learned from and even celebrated in the sophistication, splendour and spirit of our culinary traditions. My hope is that our young chefs might also explore this wealth of tradition even as they continue to innovate.
What is your hope for the Malay gastronomy scene in Singapore?
I hope that there is renewed interest in Malay food heritage among young people — a revival of old recipes, and a deeper sense of pride in the gastronomic traditions of Malay people not only in Singapore, but also in other regions in the Malay Archipelago.
What’s your go-to comfort Malay food?
It really does depend on what I am craving for. Sometimes, a simple nasi jenganan — a rice dish served with a spicy, lightly toasted peanut sauce and vegetables — hits the spot. There is heat, saltiness, tartness and sweetness which is perfection in my books.
Where are some of your favourite places to dine out?
When I eat out, I look for a range of experiences. They include a taste of the traditional food I grew up enjoying, as well as food that transports me to my favourite travel destinations. Among my favourites are Warong Pariaman for the most authentic nasi padang experience; Mother Dough Bakery for their twice-baked almond croissants; Cicheti for down-to-earth Italian fare; and of course, Geylang Serai hawker centre
Johari’s first book, The Food of Singapore Malays, is published by Marshall Cavendish
Siput bakau in turmeric coconut curry
MAIN PHOTO: ALBERT CHUA/THE EDGE SINGAPORE