(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Soft-spoken and immaculately groomed, chef Baharudin Mohd Ali is all shy smiles and gentle responses. But the minute he gets anywhere near food, his whole demeanour transforms and he instantly assumes a steady, sure confidence that is telling of his passion for cooking.
As the Malay chef at Dorsett Grand Subang, he is responsible for whipping up all sorts of Malay food for the hotel's many events. But it is obvious that the Malay food that still resonates with Baharudin is the childhood favourites he grew up with in his small kampung of Sungai Udang in Melaka.
There, kampung folk stuck together, often helping each other out and sharing things, especially food.
"In the kampung, every house has a coconut tree, rambutan tree, banana tree, ciku tree and jackfruit tree. You'll never see a kampung without some of these trees - people are always planting things! And all the neighbours used to share produce from their gardens," he says.
This is what gave rise to family dishes like Baharudin's gulai ayam bersama nangka muda (chicken curry with jackfruit), a thick, rich affair with pieces of chicken floating amiably alongside jackfruit chunks that add texture and additional flavour to the dish.
"You can taste the difference when you add jackfruit to the curry - that's why it's my family's speciality," he says.
Melaka is often called the birthplace of the famous asam pedas style of cooking, which sees tamarind balanced against the spiciness of fresh chilli paste and the powerful notes of shrimp paste in a union that produces nothing short of explosive flavours.
Baharudin's family favours an asam pedas dish that makes use of oxtail and okra, and is truly delicious. The oxtail is tender and melt-in-the-mouth and the okra is soft and supple, while the other fresh spices give the dish added dimension.
"This is my family's recipe, we love oxtail so we use it, but there are so many variations to asam pedas. In my kampung, they make a lot of asam pedas ikan, using fish like sting ray," he says, adding that the dish tastes better if cooked with Melaka-made belacan (shrimp paste).
There are also things that Baharudin grew up with that he says are still must-eats for him. Like sambal ikan bilis dengan petai (anchovies and stink beans sambal), which sees crisp, deep-fried ikan bilis and pungent petai set amidst a backdrop of fiery chilli paste.
"Most Malay people love sambal and eat it from the time they are young. Every day, must have sambal! In my kampung, sambal is very popular because it doesn't cost much to make. Growing up, this petai sambal was a favourite in my neighbourhood. Sometimes we had sambal telur too," he says.
Masak lemak (a style of cooking that utilises coconut milk and turmeric, resulting in vivid yellow curries) is something that Baharudin also makes often.
He especially likes the dish of perut masak lemak cili api bersama rebung muda (tripe with bamboo shoots), which sees velvety soft pieces of cow belly contrasted with tender bamboo shoots in an aromatic, sweet-spicy coconut-infused gravy that begs to be mopped up with some hot rice.
"Masak lemak is famous everywhere, but I like this version where you can add bamboo shoots for texture," he says.
Baharudin says all these delicious dishes are actually incredibly easy to make at home, as the ingredients can now be easily found anywhere.
"I like traditional kampung food. But it is not hard to make even if you live in the city, because these days, you can find petai, jackfruit and all the other ingredients, so anyone can make it - it's not a problem," he says.
As Hari Raya is fast approaching, he says he hopes his old-school kampung food will find its way onto the plates (and hearts) of people celebrating Hari Raya with their families.
"These are all classic Malay dishes, and represent classic Malay cooking, and people love this sort of food. You can eat all these dishes with some ketupat and you're all set for Hari Raya," he says, beaming.
SAMBAL IKAN BILIS & PETAI
400g ikan bilis, cleaned
300g petai (beans only)
1kg dried chilli, finely cut
220g Holland onion, sliced thinly
180g shallots, sliced thinly
160g garlic, sliced thinly
300g cili boh
200g tamarind juice
400ml cooking oil
Salt to taste
1. Deep-fry the cleaned anchovies until crispy. Set aside.
2. In a large pot filled with water, add dried chillies and bring to a boil. Transfer chillies to a food processer and blend finely until it forms a chilli paste.
3. In a deep pot, sauté the sliced onions, shallot and garlic until fragrant. Add blended chilli paste and cili boh into the mixture. Stir constantly until you get pecah minyak (a layer of oil emerges). Then, add the shrimp paste, tamarind juice and salt to taste.
4. Once the mixture turns a darker colour, add deep-fried anchovies and petai. Cook for 2 minutes. Serve hot with rice.
Serves 10 to 12
EKOR ASAM PEDAS & BENDI
500g dried chilli, finely cut
50g Holland onion
190ml cooking oil
240g tamarind juice
40g shrimp paste
Salt to taste
70g okra, each piece cut into two
1. In a large pot filled with water, boil oxtail until tender. Set aside to cool.
2. In a pot filled with water, add chillies. Bring to a boil. Transfer chillies to a food processer and blend finely until it forms a chilli paste.
3. In a pestle and mortar or food processor, finely pound/blend the onion, shallot, garlic, lemongrass and galangal.
4. In a large pot over medium heat, add cooking oil and sauté the pounded/blended onions, shallot, garlic, lemongrass and galangal mixture until fragrant. Add the tamarind juice, shrimp paste and salt to taste and stir for awhile.
5. Add the tender oxtail and okra and simmer for 10 minutes on low heat. Serve hot with rice.
GULAI AYAM & NANGKA MUDA
600g young jackfruit, peeled and cut into cubes
100g Bombay onion
190ml cooking oil
190g rempah gulai (can be found in supermarkets)
2 tbsp meat curry powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 cinnammon stick
5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
one whole chicken (at least 2kg), cut into 24 pieces
550ml coconut milk
salt to taste
1. In a large pot filled with water, boil jackfruit until tender. Leave to cool and set aside.
2. In a pestle and mortar or food processor, finely pound or blend shallots, onion and garlic.
3. In a large pot over medium-low heat, add cooking oil and saute the blended ingredients for a while. Add rempah gulai, curry powder and turmeric powder as well as fresh spices and fry until fragrant.
4. Add the chicken and fry until chicken is half-cooked. Pour in coconut milk and salt to taste and stir. When chicken is fully cooked, add the jackfruit and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. Serve hot with rice.
PERUT MASAK LEMAK CILI API & REBUNG MUDA
500g tripe, cleaned and sliced
160g cili padi (bird's eye chilli)
30g fresh turmeric
60ml coconut milk
Salt to taste
100g young bamboo shoot
2 turmeric leaves
1. In a large pot filled with water, boil tripe until tender.
2. In a pestle and mortar or food processor, finely pound/blend fresh cili padi, turmeric, shallot and garlic.
3. Heat up a deep pot on low heat and add the finely pounded ingredients, simmering for 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and stir the mixture constantly. Add salt to taste, tripe, bamboo shoots and turmeric leaves. Simmer for another 5 minutes and serve hot.