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Authentic laksa Johor has to be made with spaghetti that has been twisted into individual rolls. — Pictures by Choo Choy MayAuthentic laksa Johor has to be made with spaghetti that has been twisted into individual rolls. — Pictures by Choo Choy MayKUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — The time leading up to Hari Raya is a time filled with introspection but also the simple pleasures of food eaten with family. From the light yet nourishing meals Muslims break their fast with during Ramadan to the fabulous feast of classic Raya dishes prepared only during Aidilfitri celebrations, the act of cooking and sharing food is an experience that brings people together.

This joy of Hari Raya cooking is something Marina Mustafa understands intimately. The author of Hari Raya Classics and other cookbooks has many fond memories of feast preparations during her childhood.

She recalls, “My father and uncles would light up the charcoal for the outdoor stoves. We would begin boiling the ketupat. The many ingredients required for the rendang and lodeh had to be prepared; we did the cooking outdoors. Everyone would sit around and chat with each other. It was always a beautiful time.”

These days Marina is translating those childhood reminiscences into food experiences that can be shared with everyone. Besides writing cookbooks, she has developed recipes, conducted cooking demonstrations, and done food styling for various companies such as AirAsia and Philips.

Three generations of cooks under one roof (clockwise): Izarra Azuddin, Marina Mustafa, Datin Fatimah Haji Alwee.Three generations of cooks under one roof (clockwise): Izarra Azuddin, Marina Mustafa, Datin Fatimah Haji Alwee.However, her true passion remains writing cookbooks; Hari Raya Classics is her seventh cookbook and second in English. To create and test these recipes, she had to take copious notes while cooking with her mother and other senior relatives.

“My biggest challenge is getting the accurate measurements because the older folks would just say, ‘A pinch of this’ or ‘A touch of that’, which is hard for newbie home cooks to estimate. They get so nervous.”

Marina, who studied business in Melbourne, had always been interested in cooking. She says, “I worked part time in a Western restaurant while in Australia and learned about that style of cooking. So when I returned to Malaysia, I started a café called Café Dania in the 1980s and ran it for 14 years before closing it down when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.”

Spices such as red onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and galangal are indispensable for making laksa Johor.Spices such as red onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and galangal are indispensable for making laksa Johor.To get her mind off the cancer treatment, Marina’s eldest son, who was in Form Five then, encouraged his mother to write her first cookbook and helped by photographing the dishes. The cancer survivor wrote about the cycle of life, with different celebrations for each festival, from cradle to grave.

“I believe cookbooks should be more than recipes and must have their own unique voice and story. Why buy my book unless my heart is in it? After all, you can get free recipes from the Internet easily,” she says.

Besides developing cookbooks, Marina also holds cooking classes for children. “Cooking is a living skill and we should start them young so that they see it as something fun and not a chore. Most young adults these days don’t know how to cook and when they have children, they won’t be able to pass cooking skills to the next generation. A tight family relationship, which I strongly believe is the cornerstone of Hari Raya, is deteriorating these days because the adults are all working.”

The gravy for laksa Johor is distinguished by the inclusion of boiled, deboned and mashed ikan parang (wolf herring).The gravy for laksa Johor is distinguished by the inclusion of boiled, deboned and mashed ikan parang (wolf herring).This dilemma doesn’t seem to affect Marina’s household where three generations of cooks live under the same roof. Marina shares her kitchen with her mother Datin Fatimah Haji Alwee, from whom she learned all her Johorean recipes, and with her 21-year-old daughter Izarra Azuddin, who has taken over Marina’s home baking business.

There is always something delicious in the pantry and dining room, from full meals to light bites to feed a family that also includes her husband and their four children ranging in age from 13 to 25 years. “My sisters and their families are always dropping by too,” says Marina. “They insist I’m the best cook in our family.”

Garnishing a bowl of laksa Johor with a handful of shredded kesum leaves.Garnishing a bowl of laksa Johor with a handful of shredded kesum leaves.While Marina’s parents are from Muar, Johor, she was born in Perak and raised in Pahang. “I feel that my upbringing gave me a well-rounded understanding of Malay cuisines from different states. My mother-in-law, for instance, is from Negeri Sembilan, and she taught me a lot about the cuisine from that state, which uses fewer spices. The focus there is more on kunyit (turmeric), cili padi (bird’s eye chilli) and santan (coconut cream).”

Marina bemoans the many traditional Hari Raya dishes which are rarely cooked in Malay homes these days due to the work involved. She says, “Hari Raya, to me, is a time of celebration and a time to be with one’s family. It’s not only the eating of delicious meals, but about the process of cooking. Nowadays, there isn’t enough time. So I had to get creative and come up with alternate cooking methods that were less time consuming such as using a pressure cooker.”

While Marina has Malay dishes from every state in her repertoire, she is understandably known for her Johorean cooking, courtesy of her Johorean mother. She explains, “Johorean food is influenced heavily by the Arabs, possibly due to the trading post in nearby Malacca. Typical features include the use of tomatoes balanced with spices, honey for sweetness, and yoghurt (or tairu). Alternatively, some Johoreans like my mother use evaporated milk with lime juice (from the sweeter limau kasturi) so the milk gets curdled.”

Soto ayam is the ultimate Malay comfort food, traditionally served with ketupat and bergedil (beef patties).Soto ayam is the ultimate Malay comfort food, traditionally served with ketupat and bergedil (beef patties).Another interesting trait, according to Marina, is how Johoreans love to banjir or flood their food with gravies. Pineapple (plentiful in the state) is also widely used in many dishes such as pacheri nenas (pineapple chutney) and even as hantaran (Malay weddings gifts).

“My mother taught me not to grate the pineapple the wrong direction or else it’s harder to expel the juices. Pineapple must also be cooked over very low fire in so that it caramelises at a slower pace and develops a more intense flavour.”

Marina’s fondness and respect for her mother and kitchen mentor is obvious. Datin Fatimah’s personal favourite of her Johorean recipes which she has passed down to Marina is laksa Johor, typically not sold outside but prepared and eaten at home only.

She says, “I love it because it’s pedas (spicy) and aromatic from the sambal belacan. You have to use ikan parang (wolf herring) for the fish and even though it has many fine bones; it has a tastier flesh.”

Datin Fatimah also likes sup tulang; her version uses the marrow-rich bones from the ribs, which is more flavourful and less oily unlike sup ekor. She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother; cooking skills which she has passed down to Marina, who in turn is passing down to her children who are eager to learn.

Marina enjoys cooking for her family as a way of bringing her loved ones together.Marina enjoys cooking for her family as a way of bringing her loved ones together.In fact, Marina is always amazed how her four children would plan the entire month of buka puasa dinners before Ramadan has even arrived. “Dinners such as Mexican nights, Italian food, and even an evening of laksas — the sky’s the limit to their creativity. My children love Ramadan and are committed to ‘developing’ the menu. They get excited about the ingredients and preparing the food. I’m a lucky mother,” she laughs.

Truly, Hari Raya embodies the communal nature of the Malay culture, where family, neighbours and friends gather together for food and festivities. It takes a kampung, or at least a very large and happy family, to prepare the ingredients and take part in the lengthy but satisfying cooking process.

The result is a blessed meal for loved ones and more beautiful memories for the years to come.

Hari Raya Classics by Marina Mustafa is available at all good bookstores nationwide.

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