Jawi Pekan Cuisine – Unique to Penang, Yet So Evocative of Other Foods

loading The talam.

Along Lebuh Armenian, where the Jawi Pekan – or Jawi Peranakan – traditionally settled, is the family-run Jawi House establishment. Chef Nurilkarim Razha brings me on a brief tour of the kitchen, and the scent from the pots of simmering curries – which come in a gamut of colours: ochre, orange, vermillion, brown, you name it – makes me heady.

These are scents I am familiar with, and yet there is a hint of something just a little bit different from what I am used to. Is it the spices and herbs that I do not traditionally associate with Persian or Indian food which my olfactory nerves are picking up?

“The techniques, such as grounding the garam masala, came from either Pakistan or India, but the ingredients are South-east Asian – galangal, daun kemangi (lemon basil) and even soya sauce. You wouldn’t see these ingredients used in typical Indian food,” explains Chef Nuril.

Semolina pudding.

This is Jawi Peranakan food, the Jawi Peranakan being “descendants of Indian and Arab (mostly Yemeni) spice traders and businessmen whose women became very familiar with the large variety of spices available in the port cities of the Straits of Melaka.”1

It is yet another product of the cross-pollination of cultures Penang saw in its early days as an entrepot. Migrants re-created food from their home countries using local ingredients; those who cooked for their local employers tended to modify the dishes to suit local tastes.

The result is something that can only be found in Penang – yes, Penang, and even folks from the countries the food originated from vouch for its unique taste.

Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim, international scholar of social sciences (and Chef Nuril’s mother) gives me an anecdote: “We’ve had Algerian, Syrian and Iranian customers, and they said that our food reminded them of their great-grandmother’s food! There was this guy who told me our biryani tasted like his great-grandmother’s butter rice.”

But what is Jawi Peranakan food essentially?

“I think Jawi Peranakan cuisine encompasses a lot of things, but signature authentic Jawi Peranakan dishes would most likely be the roasted chicken, the bamieh, nasi lemuni and the various condiments that go along with it, and nasi kacang (lentil rice). These dishes are not exactly Malay, nor are they Indian-Muslim; they are quite specific to Jawi Peranakan cuisine and more often than not are only prepared at home,” says Chef Nuril.

Nasi lemuni – rice cooked in coconut milk, an array of herbs and telang flowers (clitoria ternetea), turning the rice a tinge of blue – in particular, has origins here, according to Chef Nuril. “Nasi lemuni came about in Penang – there’s no other place outside Malaysia that puts these herbs together with the rice. It is a traditional post-partum or confinement food, and it is also rejuvenating. I think this was initially discovered by Ayurvedic specialists, and this belief was adopted by the Malays.”

Chef Nurilkarim Razha and Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim, founder of Jawi House.

Biryani, which hunger-inducing scent wafts from Jawi House’s kitchen, also has had local infusions. Jawi House offers four options of biryani – prawn, lamb, beef and chicken – and they come served with dalca, raita, papadom and fruit chutney. “Traditionally in India and Pakistan, though, they wouldn’t eat biryani with anything – it’s eaten plain,” says Nuril, “but over here, the Jawi Peranakan usually eat biryani with a little bit of fruit chutney and dalca. Dalca itself is another local invention; India doesn’t have this dish. The biryani has evolved from this Moghul Indian dish to suit the local palate.”

Another local influence which has made its way into the Jawi Peranakan food pantheon is, naturally, the sambal, which the Jawi Peranakan usually pair with fish, or eggs.

“I think the Jawi Peranakan sambal is closer to Malay sambal. Ours is a bit mellower, with heavier usage of tomatoes and onion, balancing off the spiciness a bit. Here, everyone likes to eat their food with sambal; it’s not as common with my KL friends. In Penang, you get Chinese people cooking Malay food, you get a lot of inter-mixing like that.”

And it is through food that we learn about each other best. Festive dishes, eating etiquette, the origins of a dish – these form a collective history and the shared understanding of cultures that are different from one’s own, yet are close enough so that we know, for example, never to eat with the left hand even if we aren’t Malay, or fold the banana leaf outwards even if we aren’t Indian. Food helps us to identify with ourselves, and with each other. “I believe it plays a more outspoken role when people want to familiarise themselves with a culture. In our case, I think it allows more understanding of Jawi Peranakan culture compared to actual literature or research.”

Wazir is presently working on revising her book, Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage, which is “about the conservation of Muslim food, not just Jawi Peranakan food,” she says. “For example, during the month of Ramadan, there used to be this seaweed jelly my mother would buy. It actually still had barnacles stuck to it. It was boiled for three days with a certain kind of resin to bring out the shine, but I can’t find it anymore. I asked my sisters, but they say they haven’t seen it ever since our mother died. These things are gone,” she laments, citing a few other such sad examples, such as rice yeast in the shape of cookies made by Malay women, and the rarity of nasi kunyit these days.

Special vegetarian platter yee sang, created by Jawi House for Chinese New Year.

Do they see the risk of Jawi Peranakan food going the same way, though?

“I think Jawi Peranakan cuisine can maintain its uniqueness to a certain level. There is clearly a lot of overlap with many dishes: roti jala, for example – we call it roti surai. The challenging part would be to claim it as your own cultural heritage. We have just a few dishes which people would recognise as Jawi Peranakan food; people always overlap it with Indian-Muslim food – they might have a somewhat similar dish or a similar way of preparing it, but the end product is different most of the time.”

“We are also pushing forward a modernised version of Malay food,” says Wazir, “so we are opening a place next door which will serve modern Malay pan-Asian cuisine, taking the essential elements of Jawi Peranakan and combining it in a more vibrant cosmopolitan setting.”

Nuril says the restaurant will start serving small groups beginning this month, with the opening in the first quarter of next year.

He also reveals that there has been interest in Jawi Peranakan food of late from Singapore, which is also home to a number of Jawi Peranakans. I tell him not to give away entire recipes (“Make sure to leave one or two ingredients out!”), to which he smiles implicitly.

The sense is that if we don’t embrace our culture more, just like our street food, someone else is going to claim it as theirs. At Jawi House, they’re owning it.

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