A taste of Terengganu

File photo shows grilled fish a local favourite at an open market in Kuala Terengganu. Picture: Bernama

Sunday, October 24, 2010

PART history book, part travel guide and part cookbook, Kulit Manis: A Taste of Terengganu's Heritage is a surprising tome on Terengganu, the east coast state most people associate with a lazy beach holiday, exposing a side of its rich artistic and culinary culture and history that is not often seen.

The brainchild of Toh Puan Rosita Abdullah, the idea for the book was conceived when she woke up one morning soon after her 60th birthday, troubled over the issue of her legacy to the next generations. A Chinese Peranakan married into the Terengganu royal family, this "child of Terengganu", as she calls herself, was filled with apprehension that the rich heritage she grew up with would be forgotten and erased from history.

Hence the brave lady decided to embark on the project which stretched over three years and several hundred thousand ringgit to write the history of Terengganu as seen through her loving eyes, flavoured with a strong dose of poignant budu sauce.

"I particularly wish for my children and grandchildren to know how well integrated my Chinese roots were with Malay culture. Back then, we were a close-knit society, and our lives intermingled with each other's so much so that my father and grandfather had Malay nicknames Salleh and Mamat ...

"What better way to honour these memories than by writing all these down and archiving pictures that may one day be lost on a generation," she writes in her foreword.

Rosita has made Kuala Lumpur her home base, from where she makes frequent trips back to Terengganu. The Chinese side of her family settled in the Malay peninsula a long time ago.

"On my father's side, I am a 20th generation descendant of Chinese immigrants, and my mother's family settled here five generations ago," she says. "We consider ourselves Peranakans as we are local-born Chinese, practising a way of life that is very different from our kin in China."

The Terengganu Peranakan heritage is traced back 300 years, when Chinese immigrants intermarried with the local Malays. One of the most well-known results of that mixed heritage is the food.

Growing up in Kampung Cina in Kuala Terengganu, Rosita remembers eating Chinese food with a strong Malay influence. "Curry was made using the wet spices of the Malay, usually chillies, garlic, onions, lengkuas and ginger," she says.

Nonya cuisine of the east coast differs from their west coast (Melaka and Penang) counterparts, featuring more seafood and a preference for budu sauce for flavouring. Fried kembong fish with kicap manis, chillies and lime juice, gulai ikan similar in taste to asam pedas, fish ball masak lemak called char luone and fried fish cake are all Terengganu Peranakan staples Rosita remembers from her childhood.

"Occasionally, we bought Hainanese curry chicken from the shops. We also ate chim kuay, fried bee hoon, lor mee, and steamed or boiled crabs dipped in chilli sauce," Rosita says.

The family also enjoys roti canai for breakfast and her father, Lau Beng Ann, is fond of Indian curries. Dishes such as kay hong and kay char yam would be served up during ancestral worship, a part of their Chinese heritage the Terengganu Peranakan still upholds.

When she married Tengku Sri Paduka Raja Tengku Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah in 1965, when she was just 19, she embraced Islam and took to her husband's Malay cuisine, although "at first, I found Malay dishes to be too rich," she says.

The couple have four sons and three daughters, and one of the ties that bind them is their love for food particularly his love for her cooking.As she had married young, she didn't have a chance to learn how to cook from her mother, whom she describes as being a very good cook and makes a killer mee goreng with Malay and Chinese flavours.

"But my foundation in cooking has been built through observations and trips to the market with my mother," Rosita says. "Later, I went for cooking lessons and also relied on recipe books."

She credits much of her prowess in Malay cookery to her cook, Cik Embong.

"I learnt a lot from her and between us, we cooked up a storm whenever I entertained. I love to entertain and would concoct many dishes, drawing upon some of those I had seen my mother and grandmother cook."

Today, Rosita is an accomplished home cook who is much praised for dishes such as nasi dagang and gulai ikan tongkol.

The publication of her book has shone the spotlight on her culinary prowess and caught the attention of corporations such as Malaysia Airlines, who worked with her to feature some of her specialities in flight.

The 88 recipes carried in Kulit Manis include contributions from her friends, relatives, and other Terengganu natives. Rosita, who has a "free-and-easy" approach to cooking, says "a cookbook is just a guide to help you create a dish from what you have in the kitchen."

With her children grown up, Rosita doesn't do much cooking now, but that doesn't mean she's not cooking up another book.

The Star/ANN