Words by Rohaizatul Azhar
Ingredients that now commonly show up in derivatives of Indonesian and Malay cuisines were once used by traditional healers for their medicinal properties.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue
The use of plants and herbs to combat maladies and diseases, says UK-based naturopath and herbalist Ummahani Alkaff, have long been entrenched in the lives of the people of the Malay Peninsula. She elaborates, “The people lived in, and subsisted on, the forest that surrounded them. So, to understand the logic behind the use of these ingredients is to tell the stories of its people.”
These communities commonly used and still use plants not just for sustenance but for practical reasons as well such as materials for construction, cosmetics, and medicine. In Traditional Malay Medicine (TMM), for instance, knowledge of plants and herbs is essential as the human body is believed to constitute four elements—fire, earth, wind and water. The semangat (soul substance) of a person determines an individual’s susceptibility to various illnesses.
Ummahani shares that there is the concept of the dichotomy of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ in the human body constitution, an ideology similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). “There has to be a balance so, oftentimes food was categorised into ‘hot’, ‘cold’ and ‘neutral’ groups because it affected the body fluids and immunity functions of a person differently,” she explains. It is only when all four elements as well as the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ aspects are balanced, she posits, that optimal health can be achieved.
When the British colonised Singapore in 1819, they brought with them the spoils of European living, changing the lifestyles of many as townships were built and people found employment on rubber plantations and mines. Written records from renowned scholars and historians, including John Cameron, Peter James Begbie and Thomas James Newbold, wrote of high death rates from endemic fevers among Malay, Indian and Chinese people due to the lack of sanitisation. Coupled with outbreaks of smallpox, cholera and malaria from improper infrastructure, deaths were particularly high in the Straits Settlements.
Such illnesses badly affected productivity and so the British set up healthcare boards and policies, which were based solely on Western medicine. In a study conducted by Ooi Giok Ling for his paper titled British Colonial Health Care Development and the Persistence of Ethnic Medicine in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore , expenditure on health care soared by 152 percent between 1877 and 1901. He wrote that urban sanitary boards were established and staff in medical departments increased. The Institute of Medical Research was up in Kuala Lumpur in 1900 to supervise quarantine procedures and investigate tropical diseases. By 1924, legislation was passed to restrict activities of midwives, and the Malay rulers were also coerced into persuading their subjects to cooperate with colonial health authorities.
Traditional medicine, writes sociologist Mohammad Nazrul Islam in his book Chinese and Indian Medicine Today: Branding Asia, struggles in a modern world dominated by Western science, technology and philosophy. “They have fallen short where it matters most: providing proof of efficacy, delivering health care on a mass scale, and competing for resources to find cures for sickness and diseases,” he notes.
As such, present traditional practitioners of TMM such as midwives and confinement nannies are slowly becoming a rarity as most turn to Western medicine. For these people, learning how to harness the healing properties of nature is a skill passed down from the previous generation. Homecook Wati Baharin, who also takes private orders for postnatal care food, recalls how her late grandmother would use various plants and herbs in her cooking as ubat (Malay for medicine). “Back then, she would regularly tell
us to eat things like ulam raja or lada hitam as these have natural medicinal properties that can help nourish and heal the body,” she adds.
*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter