Cooking the “Agak-Agak” way by Dr. Lee Su Kim

The Nyonyas are famed for their wonderful, hot, spicy, piquant food and their incredible culinary skills. Many of their secrets are being lost as the older generations pass on. The following is a delightful essay on the Nyonyas and their intuitive style of cooking using the agak agak method.

Agak-Agak –lah!

A recipe, according to the definition in the dictionary, is a set of ingredients and instructions on how to prepare a dish. Ingredients are usually given in specific measurements, either in the metric or imperial system. However, in the Malaysian context, getting a recipe from a friend or relative does not necessarily mean that the recipe will guarantee you success in coming out with the dish. This is especially so if you are trying to get a recipe from someone from the older generation, say 70 years and above, as our mothers, grandmothers and predecessors cooked not by following set recipes but by intuition and years of practice.

If you love Peranakan food and you know some senior Nyonyas who are great cooks, try coaxing some recipes from them. It can be quite a flabbergasting experience. This is because the traditional Nyonyas in the past cooked everything the agak-agak way. Agak-agak means to guess or estimate, and this was how the Nyonyas of old measured their ingredients – by estimation. Instead of a hundred grammes of this, or 500 millimeters of that, ingredients were measured by terms such as an inch of this, a toss of that, a handful of this and a fistful of that. Turmeric, ginger and lengkuas (galangal) were measured in relation to the size of one’s thumb: for example, a thumb-sized or three thumb-sized pieces of turmeric.

Paraphernalia in the kitchen was also used as units of measurement. Ask the traditional Nyonya how much cooking oil is required for the gulai (curry) and she will inevitably give you the measurements by the tablespoons. This is because she measures the amount of oil with the senduk (a ladle made out of a coconut shell).

Other kitchen utensils used as units of measurement are the rice bowl, the tablespoon, the teaspoon or the cup, specifically those from her kitchen, which may not necessarily be the same size as yours, Even the humble eggshell or the coconut shell cold be used for measurement. At no point in time was the Nyonya required to go out to buy a weighing scale or a set of measuring cups or spoons. The tradition Nyonya grew up in a idyllic, gentle-paced world. Her life revolved around her family and much of her time was spent in the kitchen preparing meals for the family.

Although the term ‘agak-agak’ sounds like a lot of guesswork, the truth was that cooking, for the Nyonya, was far from mere guessing. It was a matter of years of observation and practice, a matter of intuition and a case of having the whole schema of Peranakan cuisine in her head. But try asking her for the recipe and she may encounter the greatest difficulty tying to concretize the process in her head in standard measurements!

My mother was a Peranakan lady and an excellent cook. While she owned a hand-copied recipe book full of Western recipes such as cakes, pudding and pies, she seldom wrote down any of her Peranakan recipes. Most of them were stored entirely in her head. I remember trying to record some of her recipes in writing for posterity. It was most frustrating.

“So, Ma, how many shallots do I need for the rempah for your chicken curry recipe? “ I would ask.

She would reply, “Alamak! How many? How would I know? Agak-agak lah!”

But Ma, I need a specific quantity. I don’t know how to agak-agak lah!’ I would protest.

“Serves you right,” she would retort, “Who ask you to go and take a snooze when I’m cooking? This kind of things you cannot write down, you have to kwua (Hokkien for ‘to observe’). I’ll cook the dish tomorrow and this time you better make sure you come into the kitchen and watch!”

“How much belachan (shrimp paste) should I use? How many square inches?” I would ask.

“How many square inches? How would I know, siau-ah? (Hokkien for ‘crazy-ah’?) I don’t go and measure with a ruler. About the size of my thumb, I guess,” she would reply.

“But Ma, your thumb size and mine differs!”

“Then you agak-agak lah,” she would give me that crazy,magical phrase again!

I remember how my friend, Harriet took my mother’s recipe literally. She loved my mum’s apong balik, a Peranakan pancake made out of santan (coconut milk), sugar and flour. The pancake batter was poured into a pan over a slow fire, When each pancake was almost cooked, it was topped with ripened bananas, folded over and ready to be eaten. It was absolutely delicious! Mum told her that to make the batter, she would need a kati of flour along with a few other ingredients. Harriet went home and followed the recipe faithfully but found to her dismay that the pancakes turned out hard and doughy. She reported the result to my mother.

“How much flour did you use?” my mother asked.

“One kati, just as you said, auntie,” Harriet replied.

“What? One kati? I don’t mean one entire kati when I say one kati. I mean from that one kali, you have to agak-agak. You have to add the flour to the batter until you achieve the right consistency. The consistency should be such that when you scoop up the batter in a ladle, the batter should flow smoothly and yet not be runny. Do you know what I mean… agak-agak-lah.”

It has been many years since my mother passed away. I tried to make ‘Top Hats’ the other day for a tea party and dug out an old recipe book belonging to my mother. Inside she had scribbled her recipe for the ‘Top Hats’ batter. (Top Hats’ or kueh pie tee is a delicious Peranakan snack comprising crispy pastry moulds in the shape of little hats. These hats are served with a filling of shredded turnip, carrot and chili, topped with crabmeat, egg, spring onions and fried garlic and shallot bits.)

I groaned when I saw her recipe – the ingredients were measured in non-specific terms. Instead of a definitive number of grammes for the flour, she had written 30 eggshells of flour! I wanted to ask, “But Ma, what size is the eggshell? There are big eggs and small eggs.”

And so, I had to experiment in the kitchen, enjoying myself tremendously while doing so. I could almost hear her gentle nagging,

“My dear daughter, nothing comes instant. You have to practise till it becomes intuitive. You have to agak-agak-lah.”

Extract from the bestseller – more than 10,000 copies sold

Malaysian Flavours: Insights into Things Malaysian

By Lee Su Kim

Second Edition, 2004, Kuala Lumpur: Pelanduk Publications.

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2 Responses

  1. GY Teoh
    GY Teoh at |

    I can identify with your experience with mothers’ agak-agak method. My parents are Penang Baba & Nyonya. My grandaunties & aunties on both sides were great nyonya cooks. Each was well known for their signature dishes. Most have either passed on or in their eighties now.

    Miss those grand old dames & their dishes. Their recipes were all in their head, never written down.

    Tks for trying to keep this heritage alive. The nyonya tradition is losing ground.

    In my own family, this heritage will die with us as I have sons, no daughters, my sister a half mat salleh son!

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