In the quest of defining the mutual nuances of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing, a qualitative research design was used. Since the nuances have rarely been explored empirically, this study delves into an in-depth exploration to understand the meaning of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing. Thukiman [15] noted that Johor is a representative of Malay culture in Malaysia, and this was affirmed by Samsudin et al. [12] who argued that Mersing is an area consisting of traditional and natural reserves, hence the meaning of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing is assumed worth an exploration. Figure 2 illustrates the sites that were explored for the purpose of data collection.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Data collection sites in the Mersing district

Purposive sampling was used in this research as only the experts of kuih could provide accurate data. Silverman [42] suggested purposive sampling for studies requiring specific criteria-based selection to ensure appropriate data from the actual phenomenon. Hence, the eligibility of the informants for this study was based on (1) experience in producing traditional Malay kuih of at least 10 years, (2) acknowledgement of the locals to be the region’s expert in traditional Malay kuih, and (3) in good health and willing to verbally share personal experience.

In the study, semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted to excerpt data from the informants aided by an interview protocol developed from the literature review and traditional food product concept (TFPC) by Guerrero et al. [43]. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim for further analysis. Thematic analysis was conducted to identify codes in the narratives of all informants, which were then grouped into categories and ultimately into themes to answer to the research question. Four themes were found in this study, namely, (1) the use of native crops, (2) the practice of conventional Malay cooking methods, (3) the enculturation of the east coast traditions, and (4) tradition enrichment of the Malay’s sub-ethnicities.

Analysis and findings

A total of 14 informants were involved in this study and each with different levels of experience in a variety of the traditional Malay kuih. Table 1 enlists the informants for this study. Eight of the informants are of 10 to 20 years of experience range, two within 21 to 30 years of experience range, two within 31 to 40 years of experience range, one within 41 to 50 years of experience range, and one within 51 to 60 years of experience range. The informants’ current jobs also range from full-time kuih producers to part-time kuih producers. In further reports, the informants are given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

Table 1 Informant profile according to criteria set

There are four themes identified from the analysis and these themes are mutual to Mersing as they represent the nuances of the traditional Malay kuih. Table 2 presents the discussions of each theme:

Table 2 Themes and respective categories

The use of native crops

The utilisation of local resources is one of the nuances of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing. The ease to grow some ingredients domestically for instance pandan leaf leads to its inclusion in the ingredient list of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing. Two informants deduced:

…I do have pandan leaves… pandan leaves, banana leaves, I have both at the back of the house… easy! Everything’s readily available! It’s just that certain ingredients I might run into some troubles to obtain like the roti jala. You know the flour, eggs, the colouring and whatnot… [Expert 9]

… (fresh ingredients) they are there. We can just buy them… usually there are banana plants at home. If the supply isn’t enough, we just buy… pandan leaves and banana leaves are there at home. If both are not enough (for the kuih making), we just buy. [Expert 1]

Besides pandan, banana plant, specifically its leaf, is also one of the most used ingredients in kuih. Expert 5 admitted that she always has ready stock of banana leaves as she plants banana trees around her house:

…my banana trees are here (back of the house) … here! This might look like nothing, but I do use them almost every day… it’s like if you have to buy elsewhere then you just have to… and if you have them at home, just harvest as needed. One plot here and then to the other plot. They continue to grow. The first plot previously harvested may sprout out new leaves while the latest one is ready to be harvested. [Expert 5]

While banana leaves are used for the packaging in example, as a mould or wrapper for traditional Malay kuih, the banana fruit can also be used as an ingredient. Most informants agreed on this, for instance Expert 7 highlighted:

…that kuih… it’s like lepat ubi, lepat pisang… no! It’s nagasari… there is a piece of banana inside… a whole piece of it inside covered with the flour batter, in banana leaf parcel. [Expert 7]

Full utilisation of a crop is synonymous with the Malays, as evidenced by the usage of coconut trees in the making of traditional Malay kuih. The use of coconut cream and milk, as well as its grated flesh for certain variety of kuih are common as ingredients in the kuih mixture. Furthermore, the husks of the coconut fruits were also used as heating components to cook kuih. Two informants explained:

…it’s like this… the kuih here mostly use coconut. For example, asam gumpal. The gravy is from coconut milk… that is coconut! Here, we use coconut in the mixture, if for kaswi, we coat it with grated coconut, apam beras coated also… apam bakar coated also. Others… like the apam kuah, the gravy would still be using coconut milk. Most uses coconut milk… yes! Main ingredient. Should we run out of coconut, nothing could be made! True! This (asam gumpal) could be served without its gravy! I do have my own coconut trees at the back of this house. If there are not enough coconuts, I will purchase elsewhere. I grate my own coconuts so that they are fresh prior of using. The one we bought in the market… even the smell is off! The machine itself doubtfully ever cleaned! That’s why I said earlier that if I make massive batches, the quality is at stake! [Expert 12]

…but when we talk about baking (kuih bakar) I have to find coconut husk… I need to find coconut from those who have coconut trees. I’ll ask around if they would sell or supply for later. [Expert 6]

The position of Mersing being a coastal region is resourceful of the marine harvests. As one of the main marine harvest areas in the Peninsular Malaysia, the main jetty at Endau, Mersing has been the centre where the marine harvests have been loaded for the locals. It is possible to say that the diets of the locals are based on the marine resources too. Some traditional Malay kuih in Mersing use fish as ingredients for the savoury varieties. Two informants said:

…Endau is actually the centre of seafood, like fish for example. Even keropok losong in Terengganu, should you have an opportunity to ask there, mostly they get their fish supply from Endau. Yes! Mostly from Endau’s deep sea! I personally asked about this once (in Terengganu) and they replied they got the fish from Endau, the same story when I asked the fish resources in Johor Bahru. They may have their own waters but mostly people would go to the deep sea situated at Endau. [Expert 11]

(Fish for the kuih paung filling) … fish here is easy! I mean, for those in the market, there could be some mark up in price…but if we know somebody whose husbands go fishing in the sea, we could get the fish supply for cheaper price. For example, if selayang fish worth four ringgits per kilogram, it could have cost for nine ringgits per kilogram in the market… it could be up to 11 to 12 ringgits. Now that I sourced from friends, I got it cheaper… but if in any case they don’t have it, I might need to get the fish from the market either way. But when there are plenty of catches, one kilogram could fall for only seven to eight ringgits. [Expert 4]

As with other communities’ traditional food, nature has always been acknowledged to be the first source of sustenance. Similarly to the Malays, the inclusion of native crops in their diet is prevalent [44]. For example, pandan and coconut, both are synonymous in the traditional Malay kuih ingredient arsenal [38]. Interestingly, fish, in general, will not usually be associated with kuih but is certainly a distinctive feature for Mersing. Concerning the migration history of people from Terengganu and Kelantan to Mersing for the sea activities, the enculturation of both states’ traditions amalgamated within Mersing. On top of that, Saad and Radzi [14] also indicated that Mersing had always been a resourceful fishing area in history. These define the character of the traditional Malay kuih available in Mersing.

The practice of common Malay cooking methods

It is found that most kuih in Mersing are cooked conventionally. Dry-heat cooking methods are practised including deep-frying and baking. Expert 4 for instance, indicated that deep-frying is the easiest method in making traditional Malay kuih, for instance, kuih gegetas.

…the easiest (cooking method)? Of course, the method for gegetas… the easiest would be gegetas. It is deep fried, of course it is easy! Once the dough mixed… shaped, deep-fry… and then sugar coating! [Expert 4]

Next, fried pau is also a deep-fried dish. Figure 3 shows how the pau is deep fried until golden brown in palm oil. The use of palm oil depicts the local resource consumption from the palm trees, although it is a norm to purchase commercially sold frying oil, instead of preparing it domestically.

Fig. 3
figure 3

The process of deep-frying kuih pau goreng as a final step before serving

Another example of cooking method is baking, as stated by Expert 14, who baked her kuih bakar pandan.

…the cooking method that I use (for kuih bakar pandan) is baking… using these coconut husks… we burn them as the source for fire cooking. Kuih deram, we deep fried… I deep fry kuih deram in the house, I don’t do it here (coconut husk coal cooking set up). I can’t because of the smokes… the ashes… [Expert 14]

From participant observation, it is evident that the traditional cooking method is practised for kuih bahulu bakar which is also baked. However, the method is slightly different from the usual Western style baking process. The word “bakar” is literally translated as “bake”. As illustrated in Fig. 4, the mould and the lid are heated using fire generated by coconut husk and the batter of kuih bahulu is poured into the mould before being covered and cooked through.

Fig. 4
figure 4

The process of baking kuih bahulu using the traditional method in Mersing

Apart from the dry-heat cooking methods, the moist–heat cooking method is also practiced in the making of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing. In fact, Expert 1 mentioned that boiling and steaming are among the options of cooking methods for a certain variety of kuih:

I make pepudak with coconut milk, sugar, salt… but few people make it in different way… they mix the mixture (on heat source) until it thickened. Then only they wrap it in banana leaf. Yeah! There are two ways, as far as I know… not that I know if there are any other ways. The liquid batter is the traditional way though (and it should be) boiled. Some people would steam but that is the thickened-batter way! After wrapping, then they’ll steam. [Expert 1]

Similarly, Expert 12 highlighted another kuih cooked through steaming or boiling:

…I boil my kuih. Like this (kuih asam gumpal), it is boiled. There are two methods; it can be steamed, it can be boiled. If it is steamed it will get flattened and not round… when the steam rises, the kuih flattens. If it is boiled, when the water is running boil, I put the kuih in. It’ll be suspended and keeps its round shape. Meaning that the roundness form isn’t changing… [Expert 12]

The cooking process of kuih asam gumpal can be interchangeable between boiling and steaming, however, the boiling method is more favoured. Figure 5 is a visual taken from the participants’ observation which took place in an informant’s kuih workshop in Endau, Mersing. The kuih asam gumpal is spherically shaped of gelatinised sago pearls enrobing a portion of mung bean paste. The bubbles within the running boil water keep the spheres suspended in the water to ensure a spherical shape throughout the cooking process.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Cooking process of kuih asam gumpal in gentle boiling water

The preparation of traditional Malay kuih involves a special procedure. For example, Expert 1 stated that before kuih pepudak is made, the mould made using banana leaves must be cut in a standardised size:

…not everybody is able to make it… it’s… it’s… the problem with pepudak is actually on the leaves (mould). Try to do it, you’ll fail… Yes! The ingredient is rice flour, but the batter is runny… so when the leaves are wrongly formed, it’ll leak… we pour it in, and it’ll leak out. Because a lot have asked for the recipe. I gave them but I even showed them the method… forming the consistent size of the leaves but still… they can’t make it… lots have tried it. [Expert 1]

Another method of making traditional Malay kuih may even take a step back to the pre-preparation of the ingredients to be used. Expert 2 highlighted the process of preconditioning of ingredients to make kuih apam beras:

…we make it (kuih apam beras) using exactly the ragi (a type of local produced yeast) and also rice, which have rice that is cooked with ragi… it is different! Actually, that is the way for delicious (kuih apam beras)! The fragrant! The old way! And apam beras nowadays are not made through the old way because they say it’s tedious! Got to wait for the rice to ferment, it can take two days! [Expert 2]

The common cooking methods of the Malays are mostly simple but there are specific prerequisites that may take place. These unique and intricate steps are the precursor of old customs, culture, traditions and values [22, 45] within the making of traditional Malay kuih in Mersing.

The enculturation of east coast traditions

Enculturation of varying traditions happened in Mersing through history. The kuih experts in Mersing are mostly of Terengganu descents. Expert 12 elucidated her family lineage by saying:

…we are now a lot of mix-race… more of the Terengganu… even the kuih, a lot are originated from the Terengganu. Talking about Endau, lots of the Terengganu people migrated here… so the generations that we are now… you know, my father is Terengganuan, my mother is Terengganuan… migrated here. So, we, now… we became the citizens of Johor. Around the cape (of Mersing) there are lots of Terengganuan, Tenglu, there are Banjarese, Buginese also… [Expert 12]

Suggestively, Expert 1 also mentioned that the migrants from Terengganu might have settled in specific areas in Mersing:

…at the cape area there is the place of Terengganuans… at the cape, nearing to the bridge. It is definitely the place where former Terengganuans migrated. Here (Mersing city), we have the (Mersing) Malays, we have the Terengganuans. [Expert 1]

As Terengganu state is the adjacent of Kelantan in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, it is evident that there are the settlements of Kelantanese descents in Mersing. Expert 3 mentioned:

…it’s like this… the kuih of Mersing’s, Endau’s especially… the people are mostly from Kuala Terengganu and Kelantan, mostly from Pahang. So, they brought the culture with their kuih here. If we look at the variety of kuih in Mersing, they are similar to the Terengganu, similar to Pahang, similar to Kelantan… it’s just that they (Mersing locals) do not eat, can’t accept those (kuih) that is too sweet (referencing to east coast taste palate). They changed it… like the pulut serunding (glutinous rice with meat floss), pulut ikan (fish), they changed it so not as sweet but still tasty. [Expert 3]

The statement above was supported by Expert 9, indicating that there are Kelantanese traditional kuih available around Mersing:

Okay! Mersing… since I have been living in Mersing long enough… I came here when I was 23 and now I’m 62 years old, being the child of Mersing to say the least. Okay! Firstly, when I came here… there were a lot of kuih originated from Kelantan, Terengganu. Have you tried asam gumpal? It’s very delicious, people from Endau make it… so if I were to order, I’d order from Endau. Here, there are youngsters that make it, so I ordered it online. It was not the same (quality wise). When it’s not the same, no more ordering but (the best) is from people of Endau! [Expert 9]

The fact that these informants are descendants of Terengganu and Kelantan immigrants has resulted in significant enculturation of their customs in Mersing. It is possible to say that the existence of Mersing’s traditional Malay kuih, which is remotely comparable to the ranges offered in Terengganu and Kelantan is highly supported by historical events. Thukiman [15] confirmed the event and consequences which are also deemed to be one of the reasons the author notes Johor (including Mersing) as a gateway to Malay culture.

The tradition enrichments of Malay’s sub-ethnicities

Aside from interstate enculturation, the extent of nuances to traditional Malay kuih of Mersing encapsulate Malay’s sub-ethnicity traditions. Expert 6 admitted that she is a descendent from the Melayu Pulau (the Malays residing in islands) lineage:

…based on the origin of family, it was from the island. My parents are from there… it has been so long (leaving pulau). It was of course so long ago, because my father worked in Johor Bahru, so ever since his transfer there. It was long ago… even my childhood was not spent on the island. [Expert 6]

As geographical differences confined diets of its communities, Expert 3 conferred that the people from the islands of Mersing have been preserving their customary of traditional kuih in the offerings:

Moreover, there are kuih of… you know, there are people from the islands, right? So, there are traditional kuih that originated from the islands. They are unique especially the one that is baked. Manually kneaded and all… and baked with the coconut husk… they call it roti naik… it’s hard to get a hold of those… only true Melayu Pulau can make it. [Expert 3]

Another sub-ethnic within the Malay group, Banjarese traditions are apparent in Mersing as Expert 9 mentioned the availability of Banjarese traditional kuih, … there are many more types of kuih (in Mersing) like kuih pepudak. That is Banjarese kuih.

Accordingly, Expert 1 highlighted that there are settlements of various sub-ethnicities with Banjarese concentration of the Banjarese in Tenglu, Mersing:

…here (Mersing), there are a lot of Banjarese, Malays, and Terengganuans. There in Tenglu, lots of Banjarese there. For me, kuih can be specific to different states… to each their own kuih. like Johor for example, say kuih pepudak. Banjarese would know this kuih considering as their own kuih. [Expert 9]

Expert 6 also mentioned that there are Javanese descents in Mersing. Being one of the descendants, she received exposure of Javanese traditional kuih from her mother who migrated from Indonesia to Mersing:

Yes! I am Malay but my mother is a Javanese. My mother came from Indonesia… Jemaja island. I’ve learned a lot from her. Kuih is one of them. [Expert 6]

In a similar scenario, Expert 9 also revealed that she is of Javanese descent:

I’m Malay! But I am also a Javanese descent! A mix of Malay and Javanese. Javanese is from my mother’s side because my grandfather was also coming from there… from Indonesia… yes! Across… but my mother was really good at making those Javanese kuih… [Expert 9]

Apart from that, Buginese traditional kuih is also evident in Mersing. Expert 10 shared the similarity of ingredient usage between the main Malay and the Buginese traditions:

…Buginese kuih, traditional kuih… is like, kuih jongkong. Using rice flour and then there’ll be coconut milk, inside (of the kuih) there’ll be jaggery powder. That is the kuih of the Buginese… kuih jongkong. [Expert 10]

Another example of Buginese traditional kuih was highlighted by Expert 12. It is rather unique in its attributes to be a side dish for heavier meals:

…traditional kuih, it is subjective to the ethnicities… Banjarese, Malay, Javanese… there are lots of Buginese kuih, like the popular one, burasak. It’s called burasak… it is eaten with asam pedas cooked in bamboo. That is a Buginese tradition! [Expert 12]

Malaysia is well-known for its multi-ethnicity status, housing many ethnicities under its nation. While differing ethnics confer differing gastronomy experiences, the Malays themselves are vast and varied with sub-ethnicities [46]. The Melayu Pulau of Mersing are generally of Malay descents, their settlement on those islands off the coast of Mersing has considerably influenced the diet of mostly marine catches, which impact the traditional Malay kuih ingredients. This is again supported by Miele and Murdoch [41] that the settlement of people in civilisation closely linked to their sustenance sources. This is similar to the rest of the Malay sub-ethnicities where each diet is based on natural resources.

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