It was on a Thursday morning when my mother decided that she and I should attempt to cook a traditional kuah Nasi Dagang Terengganu– which is not the simplest of tasks. It is so hard to get the dish right that most of the kuah Nasi Dagang sold at roadside stalls or even at high-end restaurants terribly miss their marks. Just ask any ‘Orang Tranung’ on how hard it is to find a kuah Nasi Dagang which tastes like the traditional, fondly remembered and possessively loved kuah Nasi Dagang. My mother was excited because the last time (and the first time) we attempted to cook the dish, it was very close to being right. I agreed to partake in the adventure, partly because I am fond of cooking, but mostly because I have always been obsessed with preventing old ancestral recipes from vanishing.
However, sometimes in my passionate crusade to preserve cultural heritage and thwart off revolutionisation, I run into a formidable foe; self-doubt. “What is the point of all this?” it asks, as I blended a few pre-soaked dried chillies to make ‘cili giling’ for the kuah. What is the point of preserving recipes someone found and proclaimed to be the staple food of your culture? What is the point of dedicating your life to protect and preserve yesterday? Why can’t the modern kuah Nasi Dagang, which can be tasty in its own rights– just very unconventional, be accepted as the new kuah Nasi Dagang? Is it blasphemy to revolutionise traditional cooking?
In fact, many ‘Orang Tranung’ who migrated out of Terengganu have already gotten confused about how a kuah Nasi Dagang should taste like. So why must we go the extra mile to find the right amount of jintan manis and the right amount of kerisik and wait for the long hours it takes to ‘mati air ikan’ (a process where you boil your fish with seasoning and other stuff for hours until the bones of the fish turn soft), simply to find the right recipe to recreate a dish and pass it down to the future generation? Is preserving an old recipe, a cultural heritage, that important? What even is the importance and significance of our cultural heritage?
“Our heritage is our identity,” my mind will chasten, trying to stifle my self-doubt. It is what sets us apart from others. It is the source of our integrity and principles. To thwart it, to replace it, to adopt something new and not ourselves will be to shed our sense of being and dress up in costumes; pretending to be someone we are not. To modernise the sacred recipes we inherited from our ancestors is to leave our heritage in dusty, dingy basements in favour of replacing it by purchasing something new, something different and exciting, but not us. In doing so, we forget ourselves. We forget how special our culture is. We forget to champion our culture and our country to make it a formidable presence on the international stage.
We abandon our Nasi Dagang and Ikan Singgang and Baju Kurung Pesak because we are bewitched by Kombuchas and Kimchis and pastas and oversized hoodies. Not to say that it is wrong for us to appreciate international food (I love pasta and croissants and British tea). But if we were to leave and forget our own heritage, our own identity, allowing it to quietly disappear and be extinct in favour of adopting someone else’s rule of life (a.k.a. lifestyle), then who do we become?
Thus, as I stir my kuah Nasi Dagang, waiting for it to ‘pecah minyak’, I ponder about how proud the French are about their croissants. And how devastating it is that neither my mother nor I have been able to cook Rendang Hati the way my late Nenek (my maternal grandmother) cooked it when I was younger. And how we never asked my late Jiddah (my paternal grandmother) for her Kuih Pa recipe. And how disheartening it is to watch a large fraction of Malay young adults obsessing about wearing their costumes right first and covering their aurat second (wear short socks that expose your ankles and short trousers that expose your knees) and how some of them simply do not understand the fault in it (“netizens are too negative” and “tak suka jangan tengok”). And how lucky I am to have grown up in the right environment under my parents’ care and to have chosen the right role model (my Atuk who was always trying to improvise and modernise things but still protected cultural heritage and taught me about the importance of it as he reads his daily Utusan Malaysia). And yes, I will dedicate my life to this cultural heritage and history preservation crusade that I have been fighting for since I was a child. And I will continue to proudly wear my hand-me-down Baju Kurung Pesak on Hari Raya– knowing that people of my age make faces at the sight of them because the Baju Kurungs were too out of date and not resembling Western or Korean dresses enough.
And so as we sat down for lunch, with the steaming hot pot of kuah Nasi Dagang placed at the centre of the dining table, I was relieved and overjoyed because everyone thought that the kuah Nasi Dagang turned out fantastic, authentic and finally right.