Over a decade in the making, food historian and author Khir Johari has finally released The Food of the Singapore Malays that explains the breadth of Nusantara cooking in the Malay Archipelago.
Sumptuous in scope and savour, Khir Johari’s book, The Food of the Singapore Malays, spans the breadth of Nusantara cuisine across borders. During his recent meet and greet at Kinokuniya KLCC, Khir offered the Malaysian audience a preview of his book — a tribute to his eleven-year culinary pilgrimage through Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Don’t let the title deceive you — Khir’s work to document endangered recipes, foraged seeds, and royal feasts spans a Malay world much larger than Kampong Glam, the historic Singaporean neighbourhood he grew up in. Eagerly, he recounted how his time in California as a student, then as a maths professor for six years, sparked a desire to preserve the breadth of Malay cooking.
But what exactly counts as Malay cuisine? Unconstrained by region or period, Khir’s anecdotes tell of a journey through the archipelago to find the ingredients, dishes, and even nearly-extinct fishing gear that have defined Malay foodways. He returns to the basics. We’re often used to counting up to five flavours in English—sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami.
He contends, that the Malay language counts up to eleven distinct flavours—including lemak (the fatty savour of coconut milk), and kelat (the flavour of unripe fruit). Coming back to the flavour profiles of a cuisine are key—particularly because food changes over time, while retaining the history and traditions of Malays across the Nusantara.
“Food reveals who we are,” he says. “Food has the potential to bring us together.”
Indeed, that faith in the power of food to cut across differences in the Nusantara is precisely what his tome captures so well, filled with its lavish photography of Malay dishes, and the people and communities behind those dishes.
Khir speaks too of the urgency of the project—during his eleven years of research, some twenty-three of the cooks, chefs, and cultural custodians he interviewed passed away. Each passing, he laments, is like the closure of a library, and we feel seriously told. Khir Johari’s kaleidoscopic tribute to Malay cooking offers both a glimpse into its diversity, and also a taste of the the flavors and histories that unite it.
This is no mere cookbook; this is a living history, and an essential volume for readers and eaters alike.
Get your hands on Khir Johari’s The Food of The Singapore Malays here.