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Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi

Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29


September 2016

Deconstructing Malay Delicacies Asam Pedas: Critical Ingredients and


Flavour Profile
Ahmad Sahir Jais1
Department of Tourism and Hospitality, Politeknik Merlimau Melaka, 77300 Merlimau
Melaka.
E-Mail: ahmadsahir@pmm.edu.my
ABSTRACT
Asam Pedas or loosely translated Hot & Sour Gravy is a typical dish, endemic in the
Malay Archipelago. Variations of these recipes can be found as far as the Indian
subcontinent and China where a dish which has similar characteristics exist, with slight
changes in cooking techniques and ingredients to suit local taste. Research of known
literature and analysis of the recipe using keywords in context (KWIC) distinctively
classify asam pedas into four flavours and character profile which are Sour, Spicy,
Umami, and aromatics elements. Further dissecting of the recipe; indicate a
proportionate ratio between these items which classifies the asam pedas into regional
dishes. Key critical item that make the base for asam pedas flavour are identified and a
based recipe for asam pedas is suggested as a standard recipe.
Keywords: Asam Pedas, Flavour Profile, Malay Cuisine
1. INTRODUCTION
The Malay archipelagos are rich with natural herbs and spices. This diversity is clearly
shown in its diverse culinary world and dishes. The uniqueness about food is that it
does transcend boundaries and borders, making it dynamic and evolving. One dish for
an example is asam pedas, traditional Malay dishes that has been enjoyed by the local
communities in the archipelago throughout centuries. Asam pedas can be translated as
Sour (asam) and Hot/spicy (pedas), which characteristically explain its two dominant
flavour profile. With so many variations, it's hard to differentiate asam pedas, but most
often it is classified according to its geographical areas. For an example, Johor version
of asam pedas is distinctly different from the Melakas version due to the usage of the
unique spice blend. Even within the geographically centered area in Melaka itself,
there is, even more, a variation of asam pedas such as Asam pedas Nyonya and Gerang
asam. Although the variation of asam pedas makes it unique, therefore, poses a unique
selling proposition, it represents a problem to the restaurateur and caterer to come out
with a uniform and controlled flavour of asam pedas. Even though it is impossible to
achieve due to the nature of human palate which is different from each other, the effort
could be an added advantage in terms of promoting and consolidating one asam pedas
flavour that could be used a brand identity and image in ever increasing areas of
culinary tourism. This research tried to deconstruct the dish into its distinctive flavour
1 Ahmad Sahir Jais. Tel.:+60133822328Email : ahmadsahir@pmm.edu.my

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

profile, examine the variation of asam pedas and give meaning to the dish, from an
academic point of view and suggested a recipe that could standardize the overall taste
of asam pedas.
2. LITERATURE REVIEW
Malay Cuisine
Malay cuisine is a unique blend of culture, traditions, and beliefs. Located in the Malay
Peninsula, being an entrept has made the areas vibrant for its economy and trade
(Sharif, Zahari, Nor, & Muhammad, 2016). Along with this is the food habit, being
influenced by the traders plying the trade routes to the Far East and the Middle East.
There are elements and influences of other culture in the Malay cooking; this is
unavoidable due intermingling and acculturation of culture. Table 1, illustrate the
variations of asam pedas found predominantly in the Malay Archipelago, although
some variations or version of it exist as far as the Indian sub-continent and the Far
East. In a market report released by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2011), defines
asam pedas as Spicy and sour flavoured tamarind and sambal or hot chilies-based
style. Efforts to translate the dish into English somewhat obscure, and vary according
to researchers. For an example, fish in sour sauce by (Suhaimi & Zahari, 2014),
spicy tamarind curry by (Vimala, Rohana, Rashih, & Juliza, 2011), Sweet and
Sour Fish Stew (Hajeb & Jinap, 2013), Chili and Tamarind dish flavoured with
Belacan (Leong et al., 2009).
Table 1. Asam Pedas, Generic Name, Major Ingredients and Localities.
NO.

GENERIC
NAME

INGREDIENTS

LOCALITIES

Assam Pedas /
Asam Pedas

The most common ingredients for this asam


pedas include onion, ginger, chili paste,
tamarind juice, turmeric, fermented shrimp
paste, salt, Daun Kesum and water

Throughout the
Malay
archipelago

Asam Pedas
Johor

Asam pedas in Johor is slightly different


depending on the region and preferences of the
local communities. The southern parts of
Johore prefer their asam pedas thick and spicy
with the addition of black pepper. The addition
of pickled vegetables such as pickled mustard
leaves (sawi masin) makes the taste even
sours. The northern part of Johor such as in
Tangkak, Muar, Batu Pahat and Kluang prefers
their asam pedas without black pepper and

Malaysia / Johor

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

NO.

GENERIC
NAME

INGREDIENTS

LOCALITIES

thinner in consistency.
Asam Pedas
Melaka

Malacca, a state neighboring Johore, has their


version of asam pedas. In general, Malaccas
asam pedas are thinner and soupy in
consistency. Nevertheless, it still retains that
basic flavour of asam pedas. The uniqueness
of Malacca asam pedas is with the addition of
fenugreek seeds (halba), (cumin seed) jintan,
candle nut (buah keras) and galangal in the
blend. They also differ, with the liberal used of
kaffir lime leaves instead of Daun Kesum for
the aromatics.

Malaysia /
Melaka

Asam Pedas
Kedah

Asam pedas Kedah was influenced by Thai


cooking. Most often main ingredients used
freshwater fish. The addition of spices such as
cumin seed. The souring agent can be either
tamarind juice, asam keping or lime juice.

Malaysia /
Kedah

Asam Pedas
Sarawak

This version of asam pedas uses Terung asam/


terung dayak as one of the souring agents. This
is the only version of asam pedas that includes
vegetables as their main ingredients.

Malaysia /
Sarawak

Asam Padeh

This dish is unique to the area of


Minangkabau/ Padang in Sumatra. The asam
Padeh/ asam Keueng are thinner than your
normal asam pedas, and in fact soupy. The
aromatics use here are basil instead of regular
Daun Kesum.

Indonesia /
Sumatra

Kaeng Som or gaeng Som or Thai sour curry is


a sour and spicy fish curry or soup with
vegetables popular in central Thailand. The
curry is characteristic for its sour taste, which
comes from tamarind. The recipe uses palm
sugar to sweeten the curry.

Thailand

Asam Keueng

Kaeng Som
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Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

NO.

GENERIC
NAME

INGREDIENTS

LOCALITIES

Rasam

Rasam is a South Indian soup traditionally


prepared using tamarind juice as a base, with
the addition of tomato, chili pepper, pepper,
cumin and other spices as seasonings. Steamed
lentils are added along with any preferred
vegetables. Nowadays, all the seasonings
required are combined and ground beforehand
into Rasam powder, which is available
commercially. It is eaten with rice or
separately as a spicy soup. In a traditional
meal, it is preceded by a sambar rice course
and is followed by curd rice. Rasam has a
distinct taste in comparison to the sambar due
to its own seasoning ingredients and is usually
fluid in consistency.

Indian
Subcontinent

Asam rebus

This variation of asam pedas is a lot thinner


than your average asam pedas. The name, Sour
(asam) and Boil (rebus) gave a hint on the
method of cooking. As opposed to your typical
asam pedas where the paste is sauted in oil,
for asam rebus, the paste is boiled in water
until it loses its raw taste. Most often asam
rebus is made with vegetables such as the stalk
of the taro leaves. It still retains the hot-sourish
taste of asam pedas.

Nusantara

Gerang asam

A variation of asam pedas, consistency, is


thicker that the normal asam pedas. Uses meat
trimmings as their main ingredients. Some
interpret this as asam pedas that used meat
trimming as their main ingredients with the
addition of spices such as fennel seeds and
cumin.

Malaysia/
Melaka

Assam pedas
Nyonya

Distinctively different from the usage


Lengkuas (galangal), Serai (lemongrass),
garlic, shallots, belacan dried shrimp paste,

Malaysia /
Melaka & Pulau

10

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Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

NO.

GENERIC
NAME

INGREDIENTS

LOCALITIES

dried chili, fresh red chili, buah keras (kemiri),


kunyit isi (turmeric) and asam jawa (tamarind)
in the dish.

Pinang

Macher tak

A Bengali dish is notably famous at the area in


the bay of Bengal, Bangladesh. Predominantly
sour in nature, with a slight hint of spiciness,
and use fish as the main component in this
dish.

Indian
Subcontinent

Ampap

Masak ampap is a traditional dish consisting of


fish, common to the coastal area of Sabah. It
has a distinctive characteristic of asam pedas,
albeit a bit dryer when presented. It can be
kept for quite sometimes because of this.

Malaysia /
Sabah

12

13

But it is prudent to estimate that the recipe came about when the Arabs traders brought
chili peppers to this part of the world. Chili pepper is native to the Meso-Indians
culture or in South America, today. In its natural life cycles, chilies are disseminated by
birds. Humans facilitated to spread these plants from their South American into Central
America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Chili peppers together with corn, beans, and
squash also known as the Big Four crops in ancient Americas. Native Americans ,
later followed by people around the world, developed a high number of varieties of the
first three primary species. Now many cultivated peppers, counting bells and jalapeos,
require human involvement for propagation.
Even Though chili are not natives to the Asian palate back then, spices such as nutmeg,
mace, and cloves that had been valued throughout Europe for centuries. Spices and
herbs helped to disguise off flavours of food in a time before refrigeration and were
also a prestige symbol. Heavily spiced foods were a prerogative of the very rich
because exotic spices were so expensive and hard to obtain. It was the Portuguese who
introduced chilies through their trading activities to Africa, India, and much of Asia.
Spice routes through Goa in India and silk route, in China, has brought the chili pepper
cultivar to Asia. (Ettenberg, 2015).
The chili is believed been brought through the Arab traders that plying the routes
between Zanzibar in Africa and the port of Malacca in the 15th century. Before the
15th century, chili was nonexistence in the Malay Archipelago. The only sources for
spicy and hot flavour are derived from the use of peppercorn, mace, and ginger.

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

Flavour Profile
Acceptance of food is not just because of foodways and food habits alone, the
characteristic of the food itself play a critical role in consumer acceptance. Among
those traits is the flavour combination. The techniques have been used for centuries by
great cooks and chef to create food which has multiple flavours, hence enhancing the
dining experience. These methods are known as flavour layering. Food which has
just a single flavour is unattractive because of its monotonous traits. Earlier research
has found a correlation of flavour interacting with each other, sometimes as
suppressant and enhancer of a particular flavour (Breslin & Beauchamp, 1996).
Research on flavour combination also helps to explain why a certain food is readily
accepted and become popular. Previous research by Ahn, Ahnert, Bagrow, & Barabsi
(2011) found that East Asian cuisine tends to avoid compound sharing ingredients as
compared to the western cuisines that show a tendency to use ingredients pair that
shares many flavour compounds. This later corroborated by Jain, Rakhi, & Bagler
(2015) in their research of Indian cuisine, has found that the reason wide acceptance of
Indian cuisines, locally and abroad are due to its distinctive and not overlapping
flavours, as compared to western cuisine which depends mostly on overlapping and
similarities of flavour in their cooking ingredients. Its the contrasting of character
makes the food more appetizing.
3. METHODOLOGY
For the purposes of this research, an in-depth analysis of the recipe is collected
representing each geographical regions. Each recipe representing a specific
geographical region in which are northern, west coast, southern of Malaysian peninsula
and Sarawak. The recipe selected indicative of a particular style of asam pedas such as
Asam Pedas Melaka, Asam Pedas Johor, Asam Pedas Nyonya, and Asam Pedas Utara.
For the recipe selection, the only recipe which has been published in books were used,
under the assumption that these recipe has been tested prior to publication. From each
recipe, repetitive keywords are then recognized, index and clustered to form a theme
using Key-Words-In-Context (KWIC) method Ryan & Bernard (2003). The data is
supplemented by analyzing previous literature on the subject matter being discussed. 8
recipes were used as a reference and basis for this review, and distinctive to their
geographical origins (Anon., 2007; Bon Ton Restaurant & Jonkers Restaurant, 2000;
Ismail Ahmad, 2006; Mohamad, 2008; Norzailina Nordin, 2005a, 2005b; Passmore,
1991).
4. RESULTS
Results of this review will be divided into two main finding and results which are asam
pedas flavour profile and key critical ingredients. The results are as follows.
a) Asam Pedas Flavour Profile
Asam Pedas could be translated as Sour (Asam) and Hot/Spicy (Pedas), hence the two
distinct flavour combination. The flavour profile of a typical asam pedas could be

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

described as a combination of dominantly sour elements, with a spicy aftertaste. It is


balanced with umami flavour derived from the fermented shrimp paste. Each of the
flavour profile derived from unique ingredients which impart distinct character towards
the overall flavour of asam pedas as shown in Table 2. Asam pedas flavour can be
categorized into four distinctive components which are the sour, hot/spicy, umami and
aromatics.
Table 2: Flavour profile for asam pedas and Key Critical Ingredients
Flavour Profile

Ingredients
Tamarind (Tamarindus Indicus Linn)
Asam Keping/ asam gelugor (Garcinia cambogia)

Sourness

Sour Eggplant / Terung Dayak/ Terung Asam (Solanum


aethiopicum L.)

Chili paste (capsicum annum)


Spiciness
Black peppercorn
Daun Kesum / Laksa Leaf/ Vietnamese mint (Polygonum Minus)

Aromatics

Bunga kantan / torch ginger/ ginger flower/ red ginger lily/ torch
lily/ wild ginger ( Etlingera elatior)
Kaffir lime Leaves / Daun Limau purut / (Citrus hystrix)
Lemongrass/ Serai / (Cymbopogon citratus)

Umami

Fermented Shrimp paste (Belacan)

The sour part or acidulants agent for asam pedas derived from the usage of tamarind
juice or asam keeping. These two acidulants agent are the most common type of
souring agents used. Other variation of asam pedas such as used in Thailands Kaeng
Som used lime juice as the souring agent. The spiciness come from the use of chili
paste, often made from the dried variety of the Capsicum annum family. The dried chili
is first soaked in water and then boiled. The chili then will be ground into a paste
mechanically by using mortar and pestle or an electric blender. Some variation of asam
pedas will use freshly ground black peppercorn to enhance its spiciness level. Black
pepper most often added in asam pedas dish that used chicken or strong smelling fishes
such as ikan sembilang to mask the odor and strong smell of the ingredients.
The third elements that complete asam pedas are the aromatics elements. The
aromatics elements are derived from the usage of herbaceous plants such as Laksa Leaf

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

(Daun Kesum /Persicaria Odorata), kaffir lime leaves (Daun Limau purut /Citrus
hystrix), or torch ginger flower (Bunga Kantan /Etlingera elatior). The function of
these aromatics , part of being palate enhancer, is to mask the odor of the protein
ingredients used in the dish such as meat trimmings (Tetel) which has a gamey smell,
Stingray & saltwater catfish (Ikan Pari/ Dyasatis Zugei & Ikan Sembilang /Plotosus
canius Hamilton) which imparts fishiness and sometimes, ammoniated odors.
Additional flavour such as sweet, bitterness and umami can also be tasted in asam
pedas depending on the ingredients used, in small, unobstructed amount. Sweetness is
derived from the use of onion, bitterness from the use of galangal and turmeric and
umami, from the use of fermented shrimp paste.
b) Asam Pedas Critical Ingredients
For the purpose of this research, eight recipes are used to analyses the ingredients
content in asam pedas. Each recipe is broken down into their most essentials
ingredients that cover the four flavour profile. Items which have the most repetition in
the entire recipe are noted down and ranked according to how many times the
particular ingredients are mentioned in the entire recipe. From the eight recipes
analyzes, 23 ingredients were listed according to the recipes. For each ingredient listed,
the number of repetition are recorded to measure the frequency across the recipe as
dictated in Diagram 1. A typical asam pedas consist of nine (excluding of water, salt,
and pepper) key critical ingredients which essential in building up the distinctive and
authentic asam pedas flavour. However, these ingredients vary according to regional
and localities. The addition of certain ingredients such as fenugreek seeds (halba) in
Malacca style asam pedas and black pepper in Johor style asam pedas alter the flavour
profile of asam pedas to a certain degree. Nevertheless, the fundamental and generic
flavour is still the same.
Diagram 1. Repetition of key critical ingredients in Asam Pedas recipe

REPETITION

9
8
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
0

KEY INGREDIENTS

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

This paper has identified the key ingredients to create the asam pedas base flavour in
regards to regional preferences. Another flavouring enhancer such as salt, sugar and
pepper were omitted as they are considered as common ingredients in the entire recipe.
A percentage of ingredients is suggested based on the observation from average
quantity (in grams) divided by total numbers of ingredients (in grams) contain in the
entire recipe as shown in Table 3.
Table 3: Asam Pedas Flavour Base Ingredients
Key Ingredients

Percentage (%)

Red Onion/ Shallots

20

Garlic

Ginger

Chili Paste

17

Tamarind Juice

10

Fermented shrimp paste (Belacan)

Daun Kesum/ Lemongrass / Torch Ginger / kaffir lime leaves

Fresh / Powdered Turmeric

Water

30

* These critical ingredients have been identified as the major contributor in the asam pedas flavour profile.
* Depending on the ingredients used, each asam pedas will have a slightly different flavour when fish, beef or vegetables are added to the dishes.

Among the key ingredients is Red Onion (Allium cepa L.). Not all onion can be used in
asam pedas because some variety imparts bitterness and pungency to the overall taste.
Red onion or red shallots are recommended to be used because it has a slight sweetness
when properly caramelize during the cooking process. The onion usually will be
accompanied with ginger (Zingier officianale) and garlic (Allium sativum). In the
Malay cooking glossary it is termed as Tiga Sekawan or loosely translated as Three
Friends of Malay cooking (Zahari, Abdullah, Azman, Kutut, & Suhaimi, 2012) and
considered as the Trinity of Malay cooking (Robertson, 2015). These ingredients
used to create the base flavour in asam pedas, and other Malay cooking. Red Onion,
Garlic, and Ginger are processed into paste form.
Second most common ingredients are the chili (Capsicum annum), in a paste form. The
chili imparts the spiciness elements in asam pedas. Chili which has been sun dried, are
soaked in water to reconstitute its texture, seeds removed and then grind into a smooth
paste called Cili Boh (paste) or Cili Giling (grind) in Malay. (Zahari et al., 2012).
The souring properties for asam pedas are derived from the use of tamarind paste. In
the analyses, six recipes out of eight, used in the research use tamarind (Tamarindus

Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

indica) as the main souring agents, while two recipes use lime juice (Fortunella
japonica) and Asam Keping (Garcinia atroviridis), respectively. As per research
conducted by Nadia Sarina, Mohd Adzahan, Sobhi, Ab Karim, & Karim (2010), the pH
level of acidulants that are well accepted by a typical consumer is around pH 4.0.
Fermented shrimp paste is used in 6 out of the recipe that is being reviewed. The usage
of fermented shrimp paste or belacan is to impart an umami flavour in the dish, rather
than to give body and texture to the overall dish. Other ingredients that are listed in
diagram 1 are not listed in the recipe due to its least recurrences in the recipe.
Ingredients such as Candlenut (Aleurites moluccanus) are not included because its
main purposes in the recipe are, as thickening agents, therefore, does not contribute to
the overall flavour of asam pedas.
5. DISCUSSION
Asam pedas is indicatively a Malay cuisine in origins. The used of local herbs, spices
and ingredients make it indigenously prevalence in the Malay Archipelago. Variations,
even though exist to the extent of the Indian subcontinent, does not mean that it
originates from that particular area. As to culture, food also dynamically changes and
evolved through passive and progressive acculturation between states, races, region
and religions. Traces of its roots can be found elsewhere, but the products these days
are distinctively different from its roots. Asam pedas can be characteristically
described as aromatic, hot and Sour Gravy, and to add ingredients doesn't add justice
to the name since it can be varied according to the ingredients used in the dish, for an
example Asam Pedas Tetel (Meat trimmings), Asam Pedas Ikan Pari (stingray)
and Asam pedas Telur Ikan (Fish Roe).Even though the main ingredients or protein
item, can be changed to suit the preferences of the community, the basic based flavour
ingredients are considerably the same. These base flavour ingredients create the
distinctively unique flavour profile of asam pedas which are, aromatic, spicy, and sour
and umami flavour. The balance of flavour, as the name implies must progressively in
the sequence of predominantly sour, followed by spicy with the aftertaste of umami
and the hint of the aromatics herbs. Question on, why these flavour combination of
sour and spicy in asam pedas works can best explain through flavour combination of
sour and spicy, works well in this dish, through the concept of flavour layering. By
combining the sour and spicy element, it enhances the palatability of the dish, together
with the umami elements and aromatic ingredients, has made asam pedas a unique
flavour. Asam pedas, as in any other East Asian cuisine, where its deliciousness is
principally determined by its distinctive flavour, representative of a group of sensations
which includes odors in the olfactory receptors, tastes in our tongue or taste buds, and
freshness or pungency, in our trigeminal senses (Ahn et al., 2011). It is suggested that,
when there are contrasting of flavour in the dish, the higher the chances of that
particular dish being accepted, hence desirable to be consumed. This assumption is
based on the research on flavour combination conducted by Ahn et al. (2011) and later
corroborated by Jain et al. (2015), taking Indian cuisines as evidence of this
phenomenon. Notable flavour in the asam pedas is the umami, derived from the used
of fermented shrimp paste (belacan). Fermented shrimp paste got its umami

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Proceedings of 2016 Festival Agro Makanan dan Bioteknologi


Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

characteristic from the process of enzymatic fermentation of shrimp interceded by


proteases yields chain of peptides and free amino acids which create flavour and taste
of umami. The addition of salt in the process enhances its meaty, savory flavour. The
degradation process also produces high glutamic properties, amino acids, and
nucleotides which contribute to the umami taste of the products.
6. CONCLUSION
Asam pedas flavour profile are characteristically divided into four distinctive flavours,
Sour, Spicy, aromatic and umami. Asam pedas is uniquely a Malay dish, where other
variation of it, are derived and innovate from the originals due to regional and cultural
influences. Similarities and dissimilarities are due to the local inhabitant preference,
geographical and cultural factors. Common ingredients for asam pedas are red onion/
shallot, garlic, ginger, chili paste, tamarind juice, fermented shrimp paste, Daun Kesum
/ lemongrass/ Torch ginger flower, turmeric, and water. This ingredient has been
identified as key critical ingredients to create a true and authentic asam pedas flavour.
Asam pedas is a representation of the uniqueness of a Malay cuisine, where ingredients
and flavours play a critical role in making the food palatable and desirable. Its
ingredients are common to the Malay kitchen, yet its flavour and deliciousness are
unique, and definitely will stay generation to come.
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Politeknik Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia, 28-29
September 2016

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