I’m writing this piece in my hometown, Malacca, where I’ve decamped to escape the noise and dust of a minor home renovation project so it seems particularly apt that the recipe I’m sharing comes from Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail (aka Ise)’s own journey back to his hometown in Kelantan. His memories of “the food that I like to taste, the food where I am coming from” were the starting point of his investigations into the historical empire of Langkasuka, an ancient Malay Hindu-Buddhist kingdom believed to have been located in the Northern Malay Peninsula, through its culinary and gastronomical culture. The result? The Langkasuka Cookbook Project, a multimedia installation, cookbook and participatory cooking performance commissioned for the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Here’s Ise himself, talking about how it all started:
The recipe that I road-tested is one of Ise’s favourite childhood dishes, one that he made, served and told stories about at the Vernissage of the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial in 2012. Ise refers to it as “the most humble” recipe and one that is “super simple”, but that was a favourite with the visitors to the APT – Sira Pisang or Sweet Glazed Bananas.
The ingredient list is short – to serve 5 to 8 people, you will need 20 bananas (Ise recommends pisang abu, pisang kapas or pisang berangan), 20 tablespoons of sugar (one tablespoon for each banana – adjust your banana-sugar ratio accordingly), 3 pandan leaves, 1 teaspoon of yellow food colouring, water and table salt.
The method is, as Ise says, “super simple” – here are the artist’s own illustrated instructions for the recipe.
You begin by making slits in the bananas, cutting through the skin and flesh lengthwise, but not all the way through. Put them in a pot, add sufficient water to cover them, together with a teaspoon of salt. Bring the water and bananas to a boil (this is to remove the sap from the bananas and firm the flesh). As soon as the water starts to boil. turn off the stove and drain away the water. Remove the banana skins and cut the bananas lengthwise all the way through.
Now add 500 ml of water, sugar and yellow food colouring together in a pot and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add the bananas and pandan leaves to the pot when the mixture is boiling, stirring constantly for 3 minutes. The mixture will slowly thicken, forming a sticky glaze that coats the bananas. And … that’s it, folks, Ise’s delicious Sira Pisang is ready to be eaten!
As I write this in the home where I grew up, devour with relish my mum’s homecooked dishes and taste again the hawker favourites I remember, I am struck by how strongly food functions as a sensory archive, evoking personal, cultural and historical memories of places lived, experiences shared and identities formed. Ise’s The Langkasuka Cookbook serves a function and carries a significance far beyond that of culinary guide or recipe book.
In addition to recipes drawn from the various diverse communities of Kelantan, The Langkasuka Cookbook features the artist’s illustrations of cooking methods, photographs of local produce and markets, as well as short essays on the history of Langkasuka.
As art historian, scholar and researcher Francis Maravillas asserts:
“As a repository of embodied memories, Ise’s Langkasuka Cookbook stands as a physical document that records a particular version of the taste, textures, smells and flavors of both rare and popular dishes that comprise the region’s shared gustatory legacy … articulating a form of ‘gustatory nostalgia’ … that is used to connect the past with the present so as to ‘go deeper into the layers of who people are’.”
[Editor’s Note: Read Weng Choy’s article, Table for Eight, about a very special dinner hosted by Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur last year, where we feasted on Nasi Gunung, cooked by Ise and his team of “superfriends”. ]