Well it goes to show that you learn a new thing everyday. I was looking down on a small brown cake-like object, drizzled in ghee with fried onions scattered on top. It reminded me of one of those thick old coins back during the Chinese Empire. This is harissa, an aristocratic delicacy from Johor. Since I have never tried it in my life, I opted for it, ‘as is’ in its natural form. How you eat it is either with pepper or dipped in honey. Here goes…
Right, it has a meaty taste and a grainy texture from the oats in it. And the ghee that binds it all together makes it rather tasty if a little worrying looking at the amount pooling on the plate. Strangely enough for something so savoury, dipping it with honey brings out the flavours well.
I am still not too sure what to make of it. With one bite, I think “I like it” then with another it tastes a little too gooey, a little too odd and I think “not really”, then I have another bite and it melts in my mouth with a cereal aftertaste that is rich and a meaty flavour all meat-lovers adore and I think “yeah pretty good”. I guess you have to come here and taste it for yourselves because it certainly is worth trying once if only to marvel that someone actually thought this up.
Ungku Anna whose recipe is translated on my plate explains that it comes from her family tree whose roots include the last Sultan of Riau. It was a food that was either created or evolved in the royal court probably brought in by traders, a result of some intermingling of cuisines. Answers to my questions were rather vague. But anyway once it was recieved, it became an aristocratic dish, eaten within the nobility which explains why in my 5 years of studying in JB I had never encountered it before. Strange brown eggs bubbled in herbs? Check. Pisang goreng with sambal kicap. Check. Spaghetti in my laksa? Check. Harissa. Nope.
What Ungku Anna and her family have done is packaged it and made it accessible for public consumption. So if you’re from JB and are craving for this, then Fiescanto Café serves one of the best harissas (I have this on good authority from a true blue Johorean) outside of the Southern State. At the moment they use the ‘batang pinang’ part of the cow for their harrisa hence it’s quite a premium product. But they have plans to branch out to a more affordable line later.
What they do at Fiescanto is make harissa more palatable. Hence on the menu are all sorts of cool dishes made from it. They have harissa fingers which are harrisa rolled in breadcrumbs and then fried. This is quite delicious with a hint of smoky cinnamon as an end note. They also have it as patties stuffed in sandwiches, as meatballs, as an actual porridge and as a meat sauce slathered over fries. Creative. I think it’s a cunning idea to take a product that is so specialized and commercialise it for people like me who is still wondering about it even as I write this review.
Harissa though quite unknown in Malaysia at large is quite common in other countries. In Pakisatan they eat is as a meaty porridge. In Jeddah they add cinnamon to it so it’s more like a savoury dessert. In Turkey it’s digested in solid form and in the Mediterranean they use it as marinade. This has turned out to be rather fascinating tea conversation.
Fiescanto also serves kacang pol, Johor style. Instead of the Egyptian version I’m more familiar with which is pale brown and almost like a thick stew with green chillies on top, here it’s more like a spicy chilli con carne. There is a thick sheen of oil on top (or is that ghee?) and they put a fried egg in it to add flavour. It comes with a side of green chillies and toasted bread. This is very good. Spicy and delicious and very filling. A lot of people come here just for the kacang pol. I definitely like this one.
“I also make fantastic mac and cheese,” beams Ungku Anna. “When we do an open house, my son’s friends always ask to tapau some home.” For that you have to specially order. Guess we have to come back since on menu are some rather interesting dishes besides the harissa. Like Nasi Goreng Meletup. Ungku Anna's son Bok also has plans to open stands in shopping malls serving harissa fingers and coney dogs. Hot dogs with kacang pol on top like a meat sauce, so watch this space.
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