MOZZARELLA cheese keropok lekor? Really? I‘ve sampled this popular traditional Terengganu snack many times before but one filled with premium Italian cheese is definitely new to me.
Piqued by the sign, I decide to give this “interesting invention” a try and make my way inside Keropok Warisan Losong.
Although there‘s still another hour before lunch time, the shop located along the bustling Losong Hj Su thoroughfare is already full of people.
I heave a sigh of relief after managing to find a newly vacated table directly under a whirring fan.
A petite serve-staff who appears to be in her late teens approaches the table the moment I sit down.
I listen intently as she rattles off a long list of keropok lekor variants from memory. Priced at just RM5 per serving, the urge to order everything off the menu becomes a tempting thought.
Then I remember the two plates of nasi dagang from my morning meal that I’d already tucked into. I had planned to just have a light lunch before adjourning for some ikan celup tepung (or ICT, as the locals call it) later in the afternoon at Batu Rakit. Now, where am I going to find the space in my stomach for all these food?
Noticing my perplexed look, the thoughtful girl offers to bring a sample serving which has a good representation of nearly all the different types available at the shop.
While waiting, I turn my focus on the people around me. There appears to be a good representation of both locals as well as out-of-towners. The latter are easily identifiable. The dark pink plastic bags filled with vacuum packed keropok lekor at the side of their tables are a dead giveaway.
I also notice that the locals tend to order significantly less food. The most likely reason is that they can easily pop by the shop anytime to satiate their keropok lekor cravings.
Before I know it, the girl reappears and places a plate laden with the piping hot fish snacks in front of me.
I’m spoilt for choice as there are so many types available. After much contemplation, I decide to start with the plain or original version and slowly work my way to the modern innovations.
My first mouthful is enough to convince me that I have found the holy grail of keropok lekor in the Terengganu state capital.
The slightly chewy bite-sized pieces taste so good with the accompanying chilli sauce.
Needless to say, the savoury snacks disappear down my stomach in a matter of minutes. As expected, the cheese-filled ones impress me the most, melting in the mouth so exquisitely. Caving in to temptation, I raise my hand to order another plate of my newly-found favourite.
A pleasant surprise awaits me when the second order turns up. The middle-aged lady serving me this time introduces herself as Ramlah Awang, the owner of the shop.
Much to my embarrassment, she tells me with a chuckle that she had been observing my preoccupation with the food earlier on and decided to swing by to chat.
Ramlah or Kak Lah Keropok, as the locals call her, breaks into a wide grin when I start showering her food with lofty praises.
Pleased with my positive feedback, she quickly takes the chair next to me and starts regaling me with her tale.
“I started this venture some 30 years ago. Ever since I was young, I had always wanted to have my own business. Furthermore, the additional source of income went a long way in helping to support my growing family at that time. Making keropok lekor was the natural choice as there were already three or four stalls selling this snack back in the late 1980s,“ she shares, while gesturing towards the heavy traffic outside.
Starting from scratch, Ramlah sampled the keropok lekor made by others and tried to second guess the ingredients they used. After that, she began concocting her own recipe.
“Everything was trial and error at that time. I was in my 20s and willing to take risks. At the same time, I had to come up with a far superior product to make my stall stand out from among the rest. After struggling for a few years, I started seeing the fruits of my labour,“ she says, pride in her voice.
Although she has been in the keropok lekor business for more than 30 years, Ramlah‘s daily work schedule has remained largely unchanged. Her day begins long before her employees report for work at 8am.
She usually gets up at 5am and performs her morning prayers. Then she would head off to the kitchen to light the stoves.
“Water takes a long time to boil so I have to start early to make sure that everything is ready when the workers come in,“ explains Ramlah.
The shop starts receiving customers the moment the first batch leaves the kitchen at around 9am. Work continues until the last serving goes out at around 5.30pm. While there are many types of keropok sold here, I learn from Ramlah that traditional keropok in Terengganu comes in just two main forms: lekor and losong.
She elaborates: “The deep-fried lekor is the all-time favourite here. It‘s chewy and has a less pungent fishy smell. Losong, which is steamed, has more character. It has a slightly stronger aroma and flavour. While it used to be less popular in the past, keropok losong is now enjoying a strong following as people become more health conscious.“
Unlike before, there‘s stiff competition among keropok sellers now, adds Ramlah. And this is why she can no longer depend solely on the traditional types of keropok to pull in the crowd.
“While I still hold dear to tradition, I also realise the importance of innovation. That‘s the reason why I started experimenting with the cheese and black pepper variants two years ago,“ she shares.
ABC OF LEKOR
Noticing my keen interest in her work, Ramlah invites me on a tour of the shop once the last piece of keropok lekor had disappeared into my mouth. She makes regular stops along the way to show me the different processes involved.
“The keropok lekor quality is determined by three major factors -— the type of fish used, its freshness and the percentage of fish incorporated into the final mixture. Five types of local fish are commonly used: parang, tamban, kerisi, biji nangka and selayang. Based on my experience, fresh tamban gives the best result,“ explains Ramlah as we walk past several women busy removing the scales and bones from a batch of newly-arrived fish.
I learn that the shop utilises as much as 200kg of fish daily. Once the fish is minced, it‘s placed in a large stainless steel mixer together with tepung sago rembiar (starch flour), salt, sugar and ice water.
“The dough is removed from the mixer once it stops sticking to the container walls. After that, the workers each take a portion of the dough and start shaping the keropok by hand,“ she adds as we walk towards a long table where several employees are busy concentrating on their task.
I‘m amazed at their speed and efficiency. They have to work fast as the processed dough can only be left exposed for an hour at normal room temperature.
After that, everything is loaded onto a trolley and taken to the boiler. Although there are machines now that can roll the dough at a faster rate, Ramlah refuses to embrace automation, saying that she still prefers the traditional human touch.
At the boiler, the dough that has already been rolled into shape earlier are immersed into boiling water for about half an hour. The keropok is cooked and ready to be removed once it floats to the surface. After that, it can either be steamed or deep fried depending on the orders received.
After the walkabout, I join Ramlah for some refreshing iced tea and freshly grilled sata ikan. The latter is made using the same dough mixture as the keropok. Slices of fresh chillies are added to the dough before it‘s wrapped with a square piece of banana leaf and slow cooked over hot coals. Sata ikan is a popular tea time snack here among the locals.
PRESERVING THE HERITAGE
Before I take my leave, Ramlah shares with me her vision for the future. She acknowledges that the keropok lekor industry is an integral part of Terengganu‘s culture and the traditional methods of preparation need to be preserved.
“We cannot discard our old ways for the sake of profit and convenience or else we‘ll lose our identity. Even though I embrace the novel forms of keropok lekor, I will always make sure that my shop still makes the original version using the traditional methods that I learnt so many years ago,“ concludes Ramlah, her tone determined.
I cannot agree with her more. Like the other states in Malaysia, Terengganu has its own cultural heritage and identity that have already existed for hundreds of years.
As our nation races forward in terms of development and technology, we must occasionally take a breather and take stock. Not everything must change for the sake of modernity. Sometimes, old is better than new.