Shukri talks non-stop as he chops the vegetables: pak choi and carrots, tomatoes and red onions. Fingers flying, he tells us about Malay village customs, such as the slaughter of a water buffalo for a wedding feast, or the assembly of the whole village when the first pole of a new house is to be installed. He talks about the medicinal use of spices, and the use of ginger, turmeric and lemongrass to aid the digestion. Then he explains how meals are used as a kind of code when the important business of arranging a marriage is under discussion: Opinions are directed towards the food and the garden, so that no-one loses face if the potential match is not to the liking of all the parties concerned.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It is a great way to learn about authentic Malay cooking
- You will be seduced by the combination of lush jungle, tropical heat and spicy flavours
- Good for: anyone who loves food and cooking
It is 30◦C and we are standing in the outdoor kitchen of Shukri’s wooden house in the jungle, on the island of Langkawi, Malaysia’s most popular tourist destination. We have already toured the house – hand crafted and built in the traditional way without the use of a single nail – and we have walked around the garden to gather the herbs and spices that will be used in the preparation of our meal.
“A Malay family lives from its grounds,” he told us, pulling up orange-centred turmeric roots and galangal (also known as blue ginger), and plucking kaffir lime leaves. We saw peppercorns at different stages of their development (every colour of peppercorn has a different use in the Malay kitchen), and bushes groaning with the most important ingredient of all: bright red chillis.
Classic Malay Food
After gathering the spices, Shukri explains the food he is cooking for our lunch. Beef rendang, with its flavours of coconut, chilli and ginger, is the classic Malaysian dish. We also have spicy chicken curry, stir fried vegetables with prawns, and fish baked in banana leaves. And the all-important sambal, the chilli sauce that accompanies every meal, and which is traditionally prepared by young girls when entertaining potential husbands. We are a large party, and so we are watching a demonstration rather than doing the cooking ourselves, although some of us take charge of stirring the dishes as they simmer away. Smaller groups can take a more active part in preparing the food.
We stop for a starter of satay – grilled meats with peanut sauce – and rice formed into perfect cubes. Sipping our glasses of wine, we sit and appreciate the jungle setting: perfect silence except for the chatter of birds, lush green foliage providing welcome shade in the steamy heat.
Then Shukri gets back to work, checking the chicken and the beef, and adding vegetables to the wok, until lunch is ready. We sit at the long table by the fishpond as an army of workers appears from nowhere to serve out rice and top up our wineglasses. The eating and the conversation begin, and we find out more about our fellow guests, their impressions of Malaysia and their previous holidays. We all resolve to cook Malay food when we get home again, although at the moment home seems very far away.
But, on this tour, there is more to come. When the last dish has been cleared away, we pile into a minibus to visit Shukri’s beachside restaurant, The Lighthouse. The setting is a cliché: pale beach, swaying palms, and deep blue sea. We are served our dessert, a visual feast of fruit, ice cream and sago. Before we leave, we are each presented with a recipe booklet and package of spices so that we can carry out our resolutions and try Malay cooking at home. Perfect.
Groups of between two and twelve people can arrange lessons in which they cook and eat a meal. These take place on Tuesday or Friday evenings, and transport to the house can be arranged from the Lighthouse Restaurant. Arrangements can be made for larger groups (up to 40 people) to watch a demonstration of cooking techniques, which will be followed by lunch or dinner. Details of how to book are on the Lighthouse Restaurant website.