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Datin Kalsom Taib and Datin Hamidah Abdul Hamid are not celebrity chefs, but they come from a line of exceptional cooks whose recipes, tried and tested over four generations, have culminated in a book that recently won the ‘Best In The World’ award in the Culinary Heritage category at the 2016 World Gourmand Cookbook Awards. Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes is a book that the ladies, both cooks in their own right, have painstakingly produced to showcase the unique flavours and culinary diversity of Johor, peninsular Malaysia’s southernmost state.

The recipe book took over two years to produce

The recipe book took over two years to produce

It was truly a proud moment for Kalsom and Hamidah to stand onstage in their traditional dress of baju kurungs, carrying the Malaysian flag and saying Terima Kasih (Thank you) at the awards ceremony. The World Gourmand Cookbook Awards is a major event, founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau of the prominent liqueur families Cointreau, Frapin and Remy Martin, with distinguished jurors adhering to strict criteria.

The contestants they were up against included entrants from France, Germany, the US, South Africa, Luxembourg and host country China, each with their own strengths and uniqueness. Kalsom and Hamidah never expected to win, but the details they worked hard to insert into the book clinched the award for the cousins. The book features not just recipes but snippets of history and background information of some of the dishes, especially on how they came to be regarded as Johorean specialities.

A sampling of the mouthwatering dishes from the cookbook

A sampling of the mouthwatering dishes from the cookbook
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Readers not familiar with Johorean cuisine will be surprised to see some Western dishes. But the ladies have included introductory notes and anecdotes on why the dishes are relevant, especially those from the capital, Johor Bahru, or Tanjung Puteri, as it was known in the old days. One such Western dish is the Cocoa Pudding with Custard and Fruit Cocktail, which the authors’ grandmother learned to make from the wife of the British chief of police. It has been a favourite in the households of Johor’s Malay elite since then.

In order to show the diversity of the state’s cuisine, Kalsom and Hamidah sought recipes from acquaintances, including from the sister of the current Sultan of Johor, Her Highness Tunku Kamariah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah Binti Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, who contributed recipes for fruitcake and other dishes from the royal palace.

The signature Laksa Johor

The signature Laksa Johor

Being avid collectors of recipes since they were young, Kalsom and Hamidah had amassed a sizeable number gleaned from their grandmother, aunts and cooks who worked in their households. And as it transpired, both had plans to publish the recipes in a book.

“One day we were talking and found out that we both had similar ideas for publishing a recipe book. As it turned out, we had many similar recipes from family favourites, so we decided to work together to publish one book,” Kalsom explained.

However, it wasn’t just a case of compiling recipes and having them printed out. For one, Hamidah had to test out all 240 recipes to find the exact measurements of the ingredients for each dish. This was because cooks in the olden days would simply throw in ingredients such as salt or sugar guided by instinct or familiarity with a recipe, or they might refer to a container such as a bowl or a cup, but there would be no way of knowing how big or small the bowl or cup was. “Imagine, there were recipes that called for ‘one whisky bottle of oil’ – which whisky bottle did they mean?” Hamidah said.

Because of the tedious work involved, Hamidah almost gave up at one point, as did Kalsom, who would be in front of the computer as soon as she woke up, and would not stop except to bathe, pray and eat.

The cousins who made Johor proud, Kalsom (left) and Hamidah (right)

The cousins who made Johor proud, Kalsom (left) and Hamidah (right)

“It was tough doing the book – especially involving 240 recipes,” said Kalsom. “We set very high standards and were too ambitious. We collapsed and had to take a break of about three to four months before we came back refreshed, recharged and finally able to finish the book.” It took them two and a half years to produce the book.

Winning the award made all the sweat and tears worth it, especially as the ladies wanted to win the award for their home state of Johor, the Sultan and the Queen, Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Sofiah binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah, who wrote the foreword, and their sponsor, Johor Corp.

When Kalsom and Hamidah started the project, both only wanted to pass on their beloved recipes to the next generation. Now that it's been completed, there is relief followed by satisfaction, knowing they will leave a legacy not just of their cuisine but also of their family heritage and history.