THE kepayang “fruit” or buah keluak is actually the seed of the kepayang tree and has a rich history. Used to make nasi kebuli, a royal dish served to ancient Pahang royalty, it now has a place in Malaysian dishes like the Peranakan specialty, asam pedas keluak.
Most kepayang trees are found in Pahang, but the village most famed for kepayang production is Kampung Pagi in Pahang. Unfortunately, there’s only one tree left there.
“We used to have a lot of trees, but they died in the floods,” said village elder Abdul Jamil.
While they have lost most of their trees, they still retain one precious asset: kepayang trader Sarifah Aminah, 65, who still works to harvest, cure, and sell kepayang fruits.
She’s especially important because kepayang fruits are tricky little things. The raw seed contains cyanide and is deadly poisonous. Locals know that they could cause illness, or what they term “mabuk”, or drunkenness. If the villagers’ chickens accidentally eat uncured kepayang, they die. That’s why Sarifah’s skills are invaluable.
If properly cured, however, they’re culinary miracles. But kepayang curing – which involves boiling, immersion in ash and burial in the ground for an extended period – is a dying art, and unless someone steps up to do something, Malaysia might soon have to wholly depend on the next big kepayang exporter, Indonesia.
“I’m one of the few people left who know how to prepare kepayang properly,” said Sarifah. “The others are old, and the young only know how to eat kepayang, not prepare it.”
It’s a worrying thought. While Sarifah has taken efforts to pass her knowledge down to her daughter, not many others have done the same, and she worries that eventually her beloved buah kepayang will disappear from Malaysia’s culinary heritage.
“My grandma knew how to make nasi kebuli; she would press oil out of the fruit and use it to prepare the rice,” she said. “I never learnt, and now the recipe is lost. I worry the same thing will happen to kepayang preparation.”
Food documentary The Local Kitchen is trying to revive interest in this gem of a seed, with the help of chef and restaurateur Nurilkarim Razha, who hosts the show. Nuril put his culinary skills to the test, and came up with a delectable fried chicken recipe with a cemang side dish, which you can try right now!