Recipes from a different time: The Bugis art of slow and lemak cooking

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SINGAPORE: The first thing that Madam Milah Bakri reaches for, as she fires up the stove and gets down to cooking us a Buginese meal, is not the oil for the pan. It’s a cup of water and two cups’ worth of coconut milk.

“Singaporeans use a lot of oil in their cooking,” she says, “but when the Bugis cook, most of the dishes use no oil at all. We use more coconut milk instead.”

It’s our introduction to Buginese cuisine and what makes it distinct from the standard Malay home-cook’s fare. For instance, on a table behind the 55-year-old is a large stack of young banana leaves – softer and in a vibrant shade of green, unlike the older, darker leaves that are more often used.

But the younger leaves, like Buginese home-cooking, are becoming increasingly rare these days, as the current generation struggles to find the time, inclination and sometimes ingredients to make these heritage dishes.

Indeed, the irony is that Mdm Milah isn’t actually Buginese. There was even a time she didn’t particularly enjoy the culture’s way of cooking, like how the liberal use of coconut milk makes almost every dish “very thick, very creamy”, she said.

Then four years ago, she was in her husband’s Malaysian hometown on the second day of Hari Raya. They were feasting on an array of traditional Bugis dishes such as burasak and nassu manu likku, when he turned to her and said: “How good it would be if I could have Bugis dishes back home!”

She was embarrassed. She saw it as her duty to be able to serve his favourite food, but her own family background was Javanese, and traditional Bugis food was rare in Singapore.

She knew about the Buginese people (Ogik in the Bugis language) – an ethnic group from the southwestern province of Sulawesi, Indonesia – and had listened to her husband’s stories of how his sea-nomad ancestors settled in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula as traders in the 1600s.

Read: 5 things that might surprise you to learn about the Bugis

But when it came to food, her husband Mr Ibrahim Ariff was not exactly an expert, as he had never stepped into the kitchen. So with the help of cookbooks, Google and occasional phone calls to her in-laws, Mdm Mila set about learning how to prepare Bugis dishes – six of which she has mastered to date. (See three recipes below)

No one is happier than Mr Ibrahim. “I don’t need to go to Johor, Sulawesi or Jakarta for these dishes anymore,” he said, beaming, as he looked at his wife adoringly. “They are now available at home.”

NO YOUNG BANANA LEAVES, NO BUGIS COOKING

Ask Mr Ibrahim to score his wife’s home-cooked Bugis food, and he gives it a confident 99.5 per cent. But where did the other 0.5 per cent go?

“Young banana leaves,” he said. “You can’t get young banana leaves in Singapore.”

The leaf in question features heavily in Bugis cooking – it is a must-have to make burasak, the Bugis version of a ketupat. While ketupat is wrapped with coconut leaves, a burasak is a rectangular rice dumpling encased in banana leaf.

Young leaves are thinner and easier to fold; older leaves tend to crack easily.

“You would have to soften the leaves first if you use old ones,” said Mdm Milah, who does so by gently passing the leaves over the stove’s flame. “When the banana leaf changes to a dark green colour, that’s when you know it’s really soft.”

The other problem with older leaves, however, is that that they infuse the dumplings after steaming with a yellow colour. The desired colour is a pleasant shade of light green – which only young banana leaves can produce.

According to Mdm Milah, it is possible to order the latter in bulk from suppliers in Johor Bahru, but it requires two to three days’ notice. “That’s why not many people in Singapore like to make burasak – because of the difficulty in getting the leaves,” she said.

This proved true when CNA Insider went hunting for them in several wet markets and supermarkets in Singapore, including at Geylang Serai and the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Older banana leaves were in abundance, but mention young leaves and you’d be dismissed with a shake of the head.

The prized leaves were located at Tekka Market eventually, at a stall that sells only banana leaves.

PLENTY OF COCONUT MILK, BUT EVEN MORE PATIENCE

The one thing that Mdm Milah and Mr Ibrahim agree makes Bugis food distinctively different from Javanese or Singaporean-style Malay cooking today, is the generous use of coconut milk.

“It’s a three-to-one ratio,” said Mdm Milah. “For Malaysian and Singaporean cooking, we use a small carton of coconut milk, but a medium-sized carton of coconut milk may be used in Bugis cooking.”

She attributed this to the Buginese’s need to keep food for a longer period of time, in order to last for long sea voyages in the past. What also helped was long cooking times.

“The longer you cook, the longer you can keep. A lot of coconut milk is used in the burasak, hence you can keep it for two to three weeks,” she said. There is none used in ketupat.

Burasak is cooked twice. First, jasmine rice is cooked in a pan together with coconut milk, and then packed into the young banana leaves and boiled for another six to eight hours. The result? Melt-in-the-mouth rice parcels infused with the fragrance of young banana leaves and coconut milk.

The flattened dumplings are unexpectedly filling, because of the coconut milk. And for Mdm Milah, they are paired perfectly with nassu manu likku, or blue ginger chicken.

Blue ginger, or galangal, is another ingredient often used in Bugis cuisine as a thickener. It also gives the dish a spicy aroma and flavour.

The chicken is cooked on the stove in a spice mix for at least one-and-a-half hours – with constant stirring to prevent the oil in the coconut milk from separating – until the sauce is thick and creamy.

You have to stand in front of your stove and have patience. It’s not like the normal Singaporean food that takes half an hour to cook,

said Mdm Milah. The amount of waiting involved, she added, is another factor that discourages people from preparing and selling Bugis dishes in Singapore. “You have to wake up overnight to prepare the dishes for the morning.”

For Mr Ibrahim’s friend, Mr Mohamad Jamal, a 37-year-old third-generation Bugis, it’s impossible to think of making burasak and nassu manu likku on a normal day.

“It’s a recipe from a different time,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of luxury now to cook these amazing dishes because of its complexity and time needed.”

REVIVING THE BUGIS CULTURE

Dinner is finally ready after a full half-day of preparation, and we all tuck in. Scooping some barongko – a traditional Bugis banana kueh made with saba bananas, coconut milk, condensed milk and eggs – into his mouth, Mr Ibrahim closes his eyes in content and gives a thumbs up.

“This is my favourite dish. Even my mother never made this for me – only my wife would. This is why I love her so much,” he teased. “My one and only honey!”

For him, the sense of wistful nostalgia goes beyond the taste of the dishes he used to eat as a child. Reviving the Bugis culture and educating Singaporeans about his ethnic group is a mission close to Mr Ibrahim’s heart.

If you ask anyone about Bugis, they will say it’s the name of a street. Bugis Street, Bugis Junction. It’s very sad.

“It is important to tell Singaporeans that Bugis is a community, a living person,” he said.

He recently published a book, The Bugis in Singapore, and is a contributor of artifacts for the ongoing exhibition, Sirri na Pesse: Navigating Bugis Identities in Singapore at the Malay Heritage Centre.

As for Mdm Milah, she is dedicated to learning more about Bugis cooking for the sake of her children. “They love it because of the spices and how thick the sauces are,” she said. “I will slowly pass on to them what I know.”

RECIPE #1: BUGIS RICE DUMPLING (BURASAK)

This recipe makes about 8-10 dumplings.

INGREDIENTS

2.5 rice cups jasmine rice

1.5 rice cups coconut milk

2 rice cups of water

2 pieces bay leaves

Pinch of salt

10 8×5-inch pieces of young banana leaves

2 13×10-inch pieces of young banana leaves

MAKE THE BURASAK

1. Wash the rice 3 times.

2. In a pot over medium heat, add water, coconut milk and bay leaves.

3. When the mixture boils, add the rice. “You must use jasmine rice so that the grains will stick together,” says Mdm Milah

Stir continuously and cook rice until mixture is fully absorbed. “The mixture must be half cooked, because you will boil for another 5-8 hours.”

4. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

5. Wrap 2 tablespoons of rice in the 8×5-inch young banana leaf.

6. Wrap five to 6 burasak in the larger leaf and secure with string.

7. Boil bundles for 3-6 hours.

RECIPE #2: BLUE GINGER CHICKEN (NASSU MANU LIKKU)

This recipe serves 4.

INGREDIENTS

For the spice paste:

6 shallots

3 cloves garlic

5 candlenut

2 stalks lemongrass

For the ginger blend:

3cm piece of blue ginger (60g)

3cm piece of yellow ginger

For the blue ginger chicken:

1 whole chicken, in pieces

2 cups coconut milk

2 cups water

2 tablespoon white pepper

1 tablespoon coriander powder

1 tablespoon turmeric

½ tablespoon seasoning

1.5 tablespoon assam water

2 turmeric leaves

3 lime leaves

3 bay leaves

½ cup toasted coconut

MAKE THE BLUE GINGER CHICKEN

1. Clean and remove fat from chicken. “Especially the bits underneath the drumsticks that make the dish smelly,” says Mdm Milah.

2. Blend shallots, garlic and candlenut; set aside.

3. Blend yellow and blue ginger; set aside. “Blue ginger is spicier than yellow ginger.”

4. In a pot over medium heat, boil water and coconut milk

5. Add spice blend, ginger blend, chicken pieces, white pepper, coriander powder, turmeric and stir. Mdm Milah says that Bugis cooking uses white pepper instead of chilli for a spicy kick.

6. When mixture boils, add seasoning, assam water, turmeric leaves, lime leaves, bay leaves.

7. Stir for another hour until sauce is thick.

8. Garnish with turmeric leaves and red chilli. 

RECIPE #3: BUGINESE SABA BANANA KUEH (BARONGKO)

This recipe makes about 8 to 10 banana kuehs.

INGREDIENTS

13 ripe saba bananas

4 eggs

60g sugar

1-2 tablespoon of condensed milk

2-3 drops of vanilla essence

2 cups of coconut milk

13 8×6-inch young banana leaves

13 2×3-inch young banana leaves

MAKE THE SABA BANANA KUEHS

1. Peel and cut saba bananas into half. Using a knife, carve out as much of the seeds as possible. This will make the kueh look more presentable, says Mdm Milah.

2. Blend bananas and coconut milk together, making sure there are no chunks. Put the banana mixture in a bowl.

3. Blend eggs, sugar, condensed milk. “When blending the bananas and coconut milk, it’s already very heavy. That’s why I blend (the eggs) separately.”

4. Combine the egg mixture and banana mixture in the same bowl. Add vanilla essence and mix well.

5. Take a large piece of banana leaf, fold it in half. Take one corner and fold it towards the middle. Grab the flaps at the sides and fold downwards.

6. Open up the middle of the leaf to form a packet for the kueh batter.

7. Pour about 3 tablespoons of batter into the packet. Carefully, fold the other side of the banana leaf inwards, then fold the top edge down to seal.

8. Using a smaller piece of banana leaf, cover the top of the packet. Secure it with a toothpick. Repeat.

9. Put the banana leaf packets in a steamer and steam for 20 to 25 minutes. “Barongko is even nicer chilled. You can eat it for breakfast with some tea,” says Mdm Milah.

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