Ulu Kedah Culinary & Hospitality

Trains are just enticing: picture windows, freedom to move around,  time to bury yourself in a book or socialize, yet moving smoothly at a speed that does not upset your cup of tea. Last month, I took the ETS to Sungai Petani, meeting up five other friends with their wives for a lesson on history, culinary and hospitality. It turned out to be a delightful three-day trip down memory lane for those born and raised in Kedah.  For me at least, having overstayed my welcome in the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the last 46 years, and now completely retired, the trip presented the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the serenity of kampong life once more….the green paddy fields stretching as far as the eyes could see, the spectacular mountains in shades of green, the soft breeze blowing, carrying with it a rhythm of kampong chatter.

 

I constantly visited Kedah in the past, at least to reconnect with whatever was left of my early life: my nieces, my nephews, my cousins but largely my memories.  The migration of kampong folks to the big city seeking new opportunities, have brought with them practices and tradition peculiar to Kedah, especially the cuisines. I have tasted Laksa Kedah, Pindang Ikan Temenung, Curry Ikan Kering, Asam Pedas Keladi, while eating out around Kuala Lumpur but I have never heard of Jeruk Maman, let alone tasted it.  Jeruk Maman  is part of Ulu Kedah cuisine, popular among the kampong folks in the district of Baling, Sik and Kuala Nerang.

Figure 1: Jeruk Maman, ulu Kedah culinary

 

Maman plant, is a national treasure, according to a farmer growing it on a large scale in Gemencheh, Negeri Sembilan.  The maman leaves, bitter though they were, actually prevented a war with the Johorians  at one time, only because the Johorians fell in love with the maman dish served (initially, an idea as a nasty prank) (http://www.straitstimes.com, October 2017). The scientific name for Maman plant is Cleome Gynandra and it is popularly-grown in Negeri Sembilan and Terengganu.  The name Maman most probably originated from the name of the town Kemaman in Terengganu.

 

Maman leaves is sometimes used to cook rendang. But it is Jeruk Maman that I am more curious about.  Jeruk Maman (Fig 1) is prepared using young leaves or shoots, salt, water and some cooked rice.  The young maman leaves and some stems are placed in a plastic, together with some generous amount of salt and topped by a cup of cooked rice, and a cup of cold water, all placed aside to allow fermentation. They are best eaten with rice, preferably steaming hot, but sometimes made into a kind of kerabu or eaten plain with some shallots and chilli padi. It was my first time. I tasted this dish during a generous dinner spread in Kampong Bukit Pak Kuning, Kuala Ketil, courtesy of Taib’s family. Kuala Ketil is a small town about 21 kilometers from Sungai Petani by road.

 

The entire Taib’s family practically participated in the cooking of dinner on that particular evening, but for a family running a restaurant next door on a daily basis, cooking dinner for 16 people was no big deal. It was a dinner drawn out over two hours of eating, interspersed with endless conversations and sometimes, thunderous laughter. I remember changing seats three times just to make sure everyone were comfortable and had a good proximity to the dishes.

 

In Kampong Sintok Bugis , (Fig 2) in the district of Kota Kuala Muda, we had another big spread of lunch, courtesy of Ismail’s family. The family served fried meehoon, fried kuey teow, nasi lemak, and many other dishes.  But the one thing I have never tried before was Nira drink. Nira (or Neera) is a sweet natural drink made from the Nipah palm or mangrove palm, native to the coastlines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its scientific name is Nypa Fruticans. It seems Nipah palm produces a sweet edible sap collected in a bottle or plastic normally fitted to the trunk. The sap can be turned into a variety of products such as gula nipah and cuka nipah or vinegar. The Nipah sap can also be fermented to produce alcohol.  Cars fueled by alcohol is not a new idea at all. For decades experimentation with alcohol and bio-fuels has been conducted.

Figure 2: Behind Kampong Sintok Bugis

To top it all off, was the brunch in Kampong Setar, in the district of Yan. After brunch (Fig 3), some of us pulled out a bike each (courtesy of Salleh’s family).  I hesitated at first.  But after a few minutes, I was able to balance myself and managed to stay comfortable on the bike in perpetual motion. With the breeze softly blowing in my face, I felt an overwhelming rush of nostalgia.  I remember visiting cousins who lived in wooden houses among paddy fields when I was young. I cycled almost everywhere in the 1960s. My initial plan was to photograph a real farmer on his rounds on the old bicycle complete with a big straw hat and a parang. But we could not find one.

Figure 3: Cycling on the bunds of the paddy fields in Kampong Setar

 

 

If you look to the left, there is the majestic Gunong Jerai, with clouds still hanging around them like white cotton balls (Fig 4).  And to the right, are paddy fields half buried under irrigation water, with luscious green paddy plants sprouting from underneath.  Miles and miles of paddy fields is a common sight since Kedah is an agricultural state and the biggest producer of rice.  I can imagine Salleh’s uncle cycling around the bunds after working the fields in the early hours of the morning many many years ago.

 

Figure 4: Kampong Setar ,paddy fields

Before the close of the evening of the second day, Ismail took us for Mee Udang (or prawn noodles) in Kampong Pulau Sayak in Kota Kuala Muda.  There are about six or seven such stalls in the kampong.  The beach-front restaurant called Yaakob made a delicious Mee Udang, using prawns from the sea (Fig 5).  To be fair, I didn’t try other Mee Udang stalls.  But this stall was exceptional because of the picture-perfect, fast-fading sunset, laid out in front of us, the sun casting its last colourful hues over the sea as we dined.

 

If you had a chance to visit Sungai Petani on your way up north towards Langkawi Island, try stopping at the Hotel Seri Malaysia, a convenient stop since it is just opposite the train station. But there is a beautiful homestay nearer to Gunong Jerai if you prefer.

Figure 5: Kampong Pulau Sayak where we had Mee Udang

 

 

 

“People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and Taib’s family, Ismail’s family and Salleh’s family all made us feel extremely welcome in their homes. The 2Fs: Food and Friendships, made me feel truly blessed……of course it’s not always about food, but who you eat with that matters most to me.

 

(*Yaakob Mee Udang Segar, Pulau Sayak, Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah, Google or call 019-542 9812 if you are lost).

 

 

 

Home

The image on the home page is of a beach near Telaga Papan, in Terengganu. Its a place I love to spend hours reminiscing, reflecting about my life and those around me.  Sometimes I catch glimpses of fishermen bring in their catch of the day.  But wait for the sunset.  Its fantastic mix of colors.

Check out my latest article “A Kind Of Paradise” under Category – Terengganu.  Actually this article was written for a submission to a writing competition.  It is about a beautiful kampong called Kampong Mangkok with Pantai Penarik.  Pantai Penarik is a popular beach with locals.

 

Regards

Husna

I Have Never Flown A Kite

Figure 1: Wau Bulan, a kite about 4 feet wide made by artisan Tan Sheng Hai of Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

 

My mother, unschooled though she was while she was still alive, taught me one thing about life and relationships. She used to say “Being in a relationship, is like flying a kite – you pull a little, let go a little so the string won’t break”.  I am not too sure if that valuable lesson did anything to my relationships but it sure did not improve my kite flying ability.  The closest experience I ever had with kites was when my brother allowed me to hold the harness of his airborne kite very briefly when I was 7 years old.

 

I confess I am more into ceramics and oil painting but kite design is somehow intriguing to me.  I made a trip to Kota Bharu recently to meet two kite makers, an arrangement made by a retired Prof Abd Aziz Shuaib, who taught architectural design in UMK.  He happened to be an ardent traditional craft enthusiast. That morning when we reached his beautiful house near Pantai Cahaya Bulan, I was surprised to find a kite maker of Chinese blood in an arguably 98% Malay tradition. His name was Tan Sheng Hai (Fig 1 & Fig 3).  The other artisan was supposed to be Anuar, a young man about 30 years old, son of the late legendary kite maker, Pak Shafie Jusoh, who used to launch his Wau Bulan on Pantai Geting beach on the outskirts of Tumpat.

 

While one has made it big commercially at such a young age of 30, with one workshop and a thriving business, selling his enormous 7 feet wide kites to Italian tourists for a neat sum of five thousand ringgit, the other remained a passionate artisan, working from the house at 53 years of age. Tan Sheng Hai is an active member of kite associations and participated in various local and international kite competitions.

 

Tan grew up in predominantly Malay communities throughout his life.  Growing up in Malay communities exposed him to Malay and Siamese traditions like wayang kulit, dikir barat, menora, mak yong to name a few. Tan moved around a lot during childhood even staying in Tanah Merah.  He was brought up by his grandmother in Kampong Kulim Wakaf Baru, Kelantan. While he lived in Wakaf Baru, Tan was surrounded by neighbours who spoke Siamese so Tan could speak both Siamese and Malay beside his mother tongue, Hokkien.

Figure 2: An intricate design or pattern ready to be tebuk or cut out to be pasted onto layers of colored paper in a 4 feet wide kite frame.

He showed keen interest in kite making since school days. At 10 years old he made his first kite. At 15, he made his first big kite.  A big kite could measure as wide as 10 feet from one wing tip to the other or 4 feet as in Fig 2 above. Some of the popular traditional kites are Wau Bulan, Wau Puyuh, Wau Barat, Wau Merak, Wau Kikik, Wau Kuching, Wau Jalabudi to name a few.  Tan’s first real entry into kite competition was upon encouragement by his father who was also an active kite maker himself. Anuar , the young man in a hurry, entered the kite world at age 16.  Upon his father’s insistence (when he was in secondary school), he entered a competition but did not quite make it.

Figure 3: Tan Sheng Hai, the artisan, showing me how to control the flight using  the teraju.

What makes kites fly? What is the science behind kites? The four forces of flight – Lift, Weight, Drag and Thrust, affect kites as they affect aeroplanes and anything else that flies (https//airandspace.si.edu, Mike Hulslander, 2012). To launch the kite into the air, the force of lift must be greater than the force of weight. To keep the kite flying steady, the four forces have to be in balance.  Lift must be equal to weight while thrust must equal drag.

 

Lift is the upward force that pushes the kite into the air. Lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are created by air in motion over the body of the kite. The force of weight pulls the kite towards the earth.  Thrust is the forward force that propels the kite in the direction of the motion. While an aeroplane generate thrust with its engines, a kite rely on tension from the strings and moving air. Drag is the backward force that acts opposite to the direction of the motion. Drag is caused by the difference between front and back of the kite.

 

And to think that 7 or 8 year old boys, some of whom didn’t even know how to read, living in the kampongs during the 1960’s times of innocence, have actually crafted simple diamond kites (in the shape of Wau Kikik) using bamboo sticks and newspaper, then flew the kites and kept them flying in the air, truly amazed me now. We thought nothing of it back then.

 

That Saturday morning at breakfast of nasi tumpang et al, a gesture of Kelantan goodwill, Tan explained the play of factors affecting the flight of kites. He mentioned about teraju, the three strings that control the flight of a kite.  Manipulating this teraju (Fig 3) requires skill.  But the most interesting gadget was the busor.  Tan explained that a busor is a structure made of bamboo, shaped like a bow. The busor is fixed to the back of the wing of the kite. Once the kite flies, it will make a sound similar to waauuu…and that, it seemed, was how the name wau was given to our Malaysian kites.

 

Happy flying…and watch out for my next post when I will catch up with Anuar flying his big kite on the beach of Pantai Cahaya Bulan.

 

(10 January 2019)