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Publication Date : 29-07-2014
Try as we may, there's no way we can recreate the delicious dishes prepared by our mum, but that doesn’t mean that we can't attempt them
Every Hari Raya, one thing that excites Chef Fazil Shahreen Ahmad is returning to his hometown of Ipoh, Perak, and tucking into his mum's special lontong (a soupy dish with compressed rice cake).
Every year, without fail, she prepares the coconut milk-based vegetable stew (some add seafood to the mix), which is typically served with bite-sized ketupat (rice cake).
Chef Fazil, better known as Chef J. Jay, doesn’t recall a Hari Raya without the lontong and has since learned the secret recipe behind his mum's mouth-watering rendition of the famous Malay dish.
There are several variations across the region, with Indonesia serving its own Lontong Cap Goh Meh – a Peranakan adaptation – and Singapore with its own take on the savoury dish.
Speaking from the kitchen of The Apartment Restaurant at The Curve in Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, where he serves as the group head chef, Chef Jay, 33, says there is a serious misconception regarding lontong.
“People often mistake the ketupat or nasi impit as lontong. It is the addition of the coconut milk gravy (sayur lodeh) that makes the whole of the lontong dish,” he says.
While Johor is famous for its take on lontong – local folks serve begedil (potato and meat patties) as part of the recipe – Chef Jay is keen to impart his mum's traditional recipe that features the Perak way of making it.
“In Perak, we enjoy lontong with just sambal tumis, which adds more flavour to the whole dish,” he says.
His mum, he says, won't mind him sharing her secret recipe with everyone. “She loves to be in the limelight,” he says, deadpan.
Chef Jay, who's spent 13 years in the culinary world, says that he has tried to stick to the original recipe imparted by his mum, as much as possible, but he admits that he's made several changes to it through the years.
“You can never stay true to any recipe because the dish will somehow turn out differently for each cook. It all depends on the chef and how they go about preparing the dish. My mother got the recipe from her mother, and she made several changes before passing it on to me,” he says.
His passion for food started when he was 11, helping his mum run a stall that sold nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and local delicacies.
It eventually led him to experiment with cooking in their kitchen. The boy who once dreamed of becoming a footballer then built his interest in the culinary world and eventually obtained a Diploma in Culinary Arts.
Although he learned plenty of trade tricks and gathered enough recipes to start his own restaurant, Chef Jay also made it a point to remember all his mum's delicious food and learned how to recreate them.
He shares another family recipe for rendang tok (dry beef curry), which he jokingly says got its name from the number of hours it takes to make it – at least six to seven.
“By the time you finish cooking this rendang, you will become an atuk (granddad),” he says with a laugh.
His recipe for rendang tok was also passed down from his mum, who learned it from her mum. Just like the lontong, Chef Jay has made subtle changes to the family recipe.
“My mum's recipe requires lemongrass, which she thinly slices, whereas I just blend it together with galangal before adding the paste to the mixture,” he says.
His changes haven't compromised the flavour of the dish, he says, and even his mum is happy with it.
“It is very difficult to get the authentic kampung (village) taste when you are recreating these dishes in the city. But I do try to give them as much of that feel as I can. I use fresh ingredients and try to stay true to the dish without compromising the taste,” he says.
This year, Chef Jay is again looking forward to going back to his kampung, and plans to make his mum take a well-deserved rest as he takes over her kitchen.
“It’s a really special feeling to cook for your family and see them enjoy the food to the very last bit. There is nothing more satisfying than to hear them say that they had a really good meal.
"When I was younger, my mother used to prepare all the dishes, and now it is my turn to cook for her... except for the lontong, of course. That she will have to cook for me,” Chef Jay says, with a smile.