19/06/2024 1:40 AM

Desertridgems

Swing your Cooking

This modern dancer makes traditional Sarawakian food every Raya

In his compact, immaculate apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Raziman Sarbini, 30, is bent over a pile of colourful kuih. He smears jam between the intricate crevices and cracks and presses the layers together. “Yes, this looks good,” he says contentedly, a smile of satisfaction weaving its way across his face.

He props up the finished kuih lapis and everyone oohs and aahs appreciatively. “Oh, that’s pretty,” his friend Nurliyana Rusli exclaims.

Raziman’s earnest enthusiasm for food is something that he recalls always being a central part of his life. As the youngest of eight siblings growing up in Limbang, Sarawak, Raziman frequently accompanied his mother to weddings and other festive occasions in the area, where she and other villagers would help cook up the wedding feast, in keeping with the spirit of gotong-royong.

“When I was a teenager, I helped my mum to cook at weddings, where everyone got together to help prepare a variety of dishes to make up a large wedding meal, so I was always helping everyone and seeing how they cooked different dishes. So over time, I got to learn by watching and participating in the cooking,” says Raziman.

Despite being the youngest of eight siblings, Raziman is the boss in the family kitchen and has been entrusted with making all the family recipes for Hari Raya. — SAMUEL ONG/The StarDespite being the youngest of eight siblings, Raziman is the boss in the family kitchen and has been entrusted with making all the family recipes for Hari Raya. — SAMUEL ONG/The Star

When he grew up, Raziman became a contemporary dancer (he also does classical Indian dancing as well as ballet) and dance educator. He graduated from the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts (the same place Lady Gaga went to) and has worked internationally on Broadway shows like Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise and was even featured in the Netflix show Move.

But his Sarawakian roots and the associated food that he grew up with, have always remained close to his heart. Which is why year after year, he helps his family whip up an assortment of traditional food for Hari Raya.

“I am the most interested in cooking among everyone in my family, so when I go home, I am the one controlling the kitchen with my mum. So everyone gathers together under my command and I tell them, ‘You have to do what I say!’” says Raziman, laughing.

On the savoury front, Raziman always whips up his signature dish of daging masak hitam. This delicious coal-black meal is unique in Sarawak as it utilises buffalo meat, which is readily available in the state.

“In Limbang, people cook daging hitam for celebrations. We use buffalo meat because we have easy access to it. This is a dish that we absolutely have to have on the first day of Raya or even for an open house,” explains Raziman.

Raziman is also a huge fan of baking, which is why he spearheads all the kuih that comes out of the family kitchen every Raya, like kelupis, or glutinous rice rolls, which is unique to Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei and is a must-have during Hari Raya and other festive occasions. The kelupis is bound in daun nyirik, which can be easily found in Sarawak.

Raziman says he loves making kuih lapis Sarawak because it reminds him of his roots.Raziman says he loves making kuih lapis Sarawak because it reminds him of his roots.

“In Sarawak, daun nyirik grows in the jungles so we just forage for it, because the jungle is basically our backyard. So we don’t cultivate it, it just grows wild. In Kuala Lumpur, it’s a little bit harder to find, so I use coconut leaves or banana leaves instead,” he says.

Raziman also makes the sweet treat of penyaram, also called cucur Jawa or cucur topi, which is essentially a disc-shaped deep-fried kuih from Sabah and Sarawak with crinkled edges and a chewy texture in the middle. In Sarawak, the dessert makes use of gula apong (the sweet substance processed from the nipah tree), which is indigenous in Sarawak. Kuih penyaram is also a gazetted heritage dish, according to the National Heritage Department.

“It is very hard to find gula apong in KL, so I use coconut sugar. But the taste is different because gula apong really gives this kuih a lot of character,” he says.

Another must-have on Raziman’s Hari Raya table is kek lapis Sarawak (also a gazetted heritage dish), which is ubiquitous and famed throughout the state. The multi-coloured layer cake is fastened together with jam and Raziman’s version features a slew of colourful layers enmeshed together.

“There is a joy that I feel when I make kek lapis Sarawak, it reminds me of who I am and even though I am not in Sarawak, it feels like home when I am making this,” he says.

This year will be the first time in four years that Raziman will be able to go back for Hari Raya and he is ecstatic to finally be reunited with his family and cook up a storm for everyone.

“I celebrated Hari Raya in the US for two years. And when I came back to KL, I couldn’t go back to Sarawak because of the pandemic. So I just invited a few friends over and we celebrated Raya together.

“But I am just so excited to go back this year! And I can’t wait to boss my family around in the kitchen!” he says, laughing cheekily.

PENYARAM

1 cup water

1/2 cup nipah palm sugar (gula apong)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup rice flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

oil, for deep frying

To make

Mix water with nipah palm sugar and sugar until dissolved. Mix the rice flour and all-purpose flour well into the sugar water.

Leave the mixture to sit for at least 6 hours or ideally overnight for best results.

Fry the batter in hot oil one scoop at a time, flipping over until cooked.

DAGING MASAK HITAM

4 tbsp oil

a few cinnamon sticks, star anise, clove and cardamom, as required

1 tbsp fennel seeds, finely ground

1 tbsp cumin seeds, finely ground

5 tbsp coriander seeds, finely ground

For grinding together

5 onions

6 cloves garlic

3 stalks lemongrasses

2.5cm ginger

2.5cm galangal

5 dried chilies (optional)

For cooking

500g buffalo meat (can be replaced with beef), marinated with nipah palm sugar overnight

5 tbsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp sweet soy sauce

3 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tbsp tamarind paste

1 tsp salt

To make

In a large kuali, heat up oil and add cinnamon stick, star anise, clove and cardamom, frying until aromatic.

Then add the ground fennel, cumin and coriander and stir until incorporated. Add the ground ingredients to this mixture and stir well and cook until the oil separates (pecah minyak).

Next, add the buffalo meat, stir to combine and allow to cook thoroughly.

Add dark soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, oyster sauce and tamarind paste and cook until the sauce thickens. Serve hot with rice.

KELUPIS

1 cup glutinous rice

2 cups coconut milk

a pinch of salt

daun nyirik for wrapping (can be replaced with banana leaves)

To make

In a pan, cook the sticky rice and coconut milk on low heat. Keep stirring until mixture thickens. Add salt and set aside to cool down.

Once cooled, put 2 tbsp of rice into one daun nyirik and wrap. Repeat the process until the glutinous rice is finished.

Steam the wrapped kelupis until cooked.