Imagine the scene: a house in the jungle, surrounded by tall trees that provide welcome shade in the tropical heat. A long fishpond beside the cooking area. This is the setting for “Cook with Shuk”, a traditional Malay cooking lesson.
Langkawi is increasingly becoming popular as a holiday destination. It is easy to see why, with long beaches lined with coconut trees, jungle scenery and a tropical climate. But if you can tear yourself away from the beach, and you want a day out with a difference, take a cookery lesson at Chef Shukri’s traditional wooden house in the heart of the jungle.
A Traditional Malay House
The visit started with a tour of the garden, to see the herbs and spices that are used in Malay cooking. A Malaysian family lives from its grounds, Shukri said as he showed us roots of ginger and bright orange turmeric. He explained about the different types of pepper (green is mild, white is for fish and black for beef) and chillies (the larger the milder).
We also had a tour of the house (leaving our shoes at the bottom of the stairs). This is a traditional wooden house, completely handcrafted and constructed without the use of a single nail, and designed to keep as cool as possible. Inside the wood is carved into intricate patterns of flowers and spices.
The Cookery Lesson
Then it was time to start cooking. The table was laid out with dishes of herbs and spices and Shukri explained what we would be doing. On the day of our visit it was satay with little cubes of rice, followed by beef rendang, chicken curry, stir fried vegetables and fish baked in banana leaves.
As the cooking progressed, and the rich aromas floated into the air, Shukri gave us snippets of Malay culture. He explained how weddings are community affairs, with whole villages getting together to prepare the feast. There might be up to 5,000 people present, and the partying would continue all night.
Shukri told us how young girls prepare sambal belacan (a sauce of chillies with fermented shrimp paste) for their potential husbands. The sambal is very important when marriages are being arranged, he told us. Malay people don’t like to talk about things directly, so when a marriage is being considered the girl’s parents will invite the prospective groom and his parents to lunch. The two fathers will walk around the garden and look at the flowers. “Your roses are beautiful,” the man’s father may say, meaning that the girl is to his liking. And her father might say, “They are now in full bloom,” or “Yes, but they are not ready to be plucked,” depending on whether the young man has met with his approval.
Meanwhile the girl prepares the sambal for lunch. Too much sugar means she is not ready for marriage; too much vinegar or chilli means her temperament is not right. But a perfect sambal indicates that she is ready to be married to this young man. As they leave, the man’s family will say “That sambal was just right,” or “The sambal will become very good in the future”. That way everyone knows what is intended but no feelings are hurt.
Finally the meal was ready and we sat down to eat, an alfresco meal with wine and good conversation. A fabulous end to a never to be forgotten cookery lesson.