Traditional dishes dying out

KUALA LUMPUR - Ikan masak tanah liat (clay-baked fish), opok-opok (glutinous rice crackers), pulut kukus dalam periuk kera (pitcher plant glutinuous rice), kebebe (mashed fruits in bamboo). Sounds foreign?

These are actually traditional food unique to Malaysians in Peninsular Malaysia but they are dying out due to difficulty in obtaining raw ingredients such as buah rong and ikan loma, which is close to extinction.

That led to the National Heritage Department organising the "101 Close to Extinction Food Assemblage" at the old National Palace here on Saturday.

Though there are 101 dishes to be documented by the department, the event demonstrated the cooking techniques of just 11 dishes.

One of the highlights was the ikan masak tanah liat.

Raja Puan Muda Perak Raja Nur Mahani Raja Shahar Shah, who launched the event, revealed the dish by breaking the clay which wrapped the fish.

Mohd Nor Yaakob, 24, who operates a booth at the event, said ikan masak tanah liat tasted sweeter cooked this way.

The fishy smell was absorbed by the clay, making the fish that is seasoned with onion, chilli, turmeric, lemongrass and shrimp paste retain its original taste, he said

"People of yesteryears used the soil around the well as raw material. But as wells are now obsolete, we have resorted to the soil beside rivers.

"We dug about two feet to obtain clean soil," said Mohd Nor of the Perlis dish.

As people used to stay near rivers in the olden days, most of the fish-based dishes on display are freshwater fish; which according to most vendors at the assemblage are no longer common these days.

"Freshwater fish usually has more bones.

"That's why people don't like to eat it but people during those times didn't have any choice but to find unique ways to cook the fish," said Saidi Othman Mahyudin, 46, another booth operator.

Saidi runs a traditional restaurant in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, in which his most famous dish is ikan pindang daun sernia.

The dish requires steaming the fish stuffed with chilli paste and wrapped in daun sernia for 24 hours and then cooked in any preferred manner.

"We usually cook the fish in lemak (coconut milk) but the key point is the steaming process.

"That softens the bones, making the entire fish easily consumed," Saidi said.

Civil servant Ina Tisha Merican, 36, who tasted almost all the 11 dishes demonstrated, said it was a unique experience.

"I come from Perlis but I have never even heard of ikan masak tanah liat.

"There was also the nasi lemuni (lemuni is a type of herb) which tasted so good. I didn't even know local herbs could make such delicious rice," said Ina.