Saturday, January 16, 2010


Exploring the wonders of Terengganu
DINA ZAMAN reviews Kulit Manis: A Taste of Terengganu’s Heritage, a joyous celebration of the many facets of Terengganu

KULIT MANIS. That’s Malay for cinnamon. The bark exemplifies all that is Terengganu: it is spicy and sweet, rich in history and flavourful in the characters which make up the state’s people. It is also delicious, just like the recipes in the book, which are very much a part of the lives of the anak-anak Terengganu.

It is not another cookbook. There have been a number of cookbooks which have attempted to marry culture, history and food in a volume of text and visuals, but Kulit Manis: A Taste of Terengganu’s Heritage, imperfect as it is, has managed to do all three in an engaging manner. The book could have been tighter, as there are parts which meander and can be self-indulgent, but nonetheless it is a lyrical description of a state which is solely known for its sea, sand and turtles. There is more to Terengganu than meets the eye.

Terengganu shares almost the same reputation as Kelantan for being rather conservative and Islamically fundamentalist in her lifestyle. But is it really? Just like how Kelantan has proven to be a friendly state to non-Muslims, Terengganu too is multiracial. It’s a state made up of descendants of seafaring men and women, missionaries and traders who came from Arabia, China, India and the region itself. The only marked difference between the two states would be that in Terengganu, the people take life as it comes. There is no hurry or worry.

Kulit Manis is a sentimental trip down memory lane for many. The preliminary chapters disclose the history of the state and its people, and, of course, its food. The reader will learn how the state came to be, and the people who made the state their home. It is a semi-autobiographical book by a woman who is passionate about food and her personal history. Project Director, To’ Puan Rosita Abdullah, worked on the book for three years, literally pestering and chasing after facts and anecdotes. Kulit Manis is an heirloom she plans to leave for her family, friends and readers.

The foreword details her life as a young Chinese girl living in Kampung China, Terengganu, and her subsequent marriage to Terengganu royalty, and her conversion to Islam and adapting to Malay culture. Yet despite the challenges thrown, she has made her journey her own, unique with observation on culture and how food had united the many races in Terengganu.

The history buff will enjoy learning about how Islam and the Chinese came to roost in Terengganu. Legends surrounding the origins of ‘Terengganu’ are discussed in the book, too. Did the state’s name derive from “terang ganu” which means “bright rainbow?” Or from “taring anu” which means “the fang of … something”? Several Chinese versions of the name cropped up in the 13th century, alluding to Terengganu’s gloried past as a bustling trading post.

It is when it comes to the foods of Terengganu and its people that the book comes to life. The reader can pick up the energy behind the words, and can one blame him? Recipes dance and entice the reader to go try a dish out in the privacy of his home. The personalities in the book encourage the reader to pack up his bag and visit Terengganu to befriend them!

Malay Terengganu food is influenced by the hot spices of India while Chinese food has fused some of the elements of Malay and Indian herbs and spices into it. And each ethnic group which has made Terengganu its home has its own communities; they were not homogenous. Imagine Hokkien, Hainanese and Teochoew influences in the famous kerepok lekor—yes, there is a derivative of the fish sausage that the Chinese community of Terengganu have made their own! The Tirok Chinese are adept in both Malay and Chinese cooking methods, which translate into gastronomic wonders.

For the wannabe chef and even the experienced cook, note that the recipes’ ingredients in the book are based on estimation and approximation. There is none of the usual “one tablespoon or teaspoon of this or that” here; to gauge the taste of the dishes one relies on sight, taste and gut instinct. Certainly not for the foolhardy but yes for the adventurous cook. Add in a lot of love and you may just have hosted the dinner of the year!

The personalities featured in Kulit Manis are a mixed bag of well-known and low-key ones but all are passionate about their work. Tengku Ismail Tengku Su, the songket maker, is renowned nationally and abroad. His estate, Pura Tanjung Sabtu, has visitors from all over staying for the weekend. Then there’s Alex Lee of Ping Anchorage. Alex’s obsession for Malay houses and culture is seen at his estate in Penarik, which will be ready in 2010 for guests. The estate, like Pura Tanjung Sabtu, is like stepping back into the past.

The last chapter, ‘Sanctuary,’ is about Terengganu’s blessed gems for its people: its wetlands and gifts of nature. There is the deep blue green sea which everyone knows, but hardly anyone else knows about the mysterious Setiu Wetlands which is an environmentalist’s dream come true. All the reader would know of Terengganu is its famed beaches and turtles.

At RM250 per tome, Kulit Manis is indeed an investment. However, consider it as a gift which will last a lifetime. It will not date, as the contents are evergreen, and history does not change. It makes for a great new year’s gift, and is definitely not a book that is left to gather dust.

DINA ZAMAN writes so she can seek answers. However, most of the time, she doesn’t. When she has time at her disposal, she enjoys reading literary fiction or trashy magazines. Her pet causes include Tony Leung, children’s rights advocacy and HIV/AIDS issues. She has written for various media and is a columnist with an online news portal.

Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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