Cooking Abroad

Malbi for Memories of Lebaran in Palembang


I am always happy when Idul Fitri, or Lebaran as we call it in Indonesia, rolls around. I will never forget how one of my aunts was always sure to bring a big bowl of Malbi, a stew replete with Palembang spices, along with several packs of steamed rice cakes. This was a family tradition.

I also always made a point to visit her home around the holidays because I knew this aunt would be serving her Malbi, of which she always said: “The secret is in the wong kito root, you really can’t deny that!” It was a joy to tuck into rice cakes, malbi and spicy fried pineapple and chili sauce, while chatting and joking around with my cousins.

I also remember a friend’s wedding in Kenduri in the 1990s, where Malbi was served. The venue for the ceremony was in the interior regions, and could be reached only by a boat trip along the Musi River. The bride’s family home was on the banks of a tributary of the Musi River, so to reach that traditional kayu tinggi structure we had to go by canoe.

In the bride’s home village, everything was done by water; even going to local shops required a canoe trip. While there, I had the opportunity to help the bride’s female relatives and other women from the village prepare the midday banquet. The fragrance of spices mingled with the kitchen smoke, as we cooked happily together in enthusiastic togetherness.

Malbi has a specific aroma and flavor. The scent of the spices in the sauce inundating the succulent and tender pieces of meat was intensely alluring with the promise of a sweet, rich flavor. I love that flavor combination. As is customary, the Malbi was served with sambal goreng nanas (stir-fried pineapple and chili sauce without shrimp paste) to balance the richness of the main dish. This combination of dishes provides an unforgettable taste sensation.

It is not difficult to cook Malbi. Most of the ingredients I need are generally in stock in my pantry. Meat for the dish is also never a problem. We have a small farm where we raise a number of cattle for our own consumption as processed in line with Islamic teachings. So, there is no reason for me not to indulge in cooking up a batch of Malbi.

Malbi’s rich flavor originates primarily from coconut milk squeezed from a grated ripe coconut. Unfortunately, I can’t get fresh ripe coconut where I live, so I purchase canned coconut milk with a concentration of 60% coconut or more at a nearby Asian food store.

Sometimes I can even manage to get a good thick coconut milk by dry roasting packaged grated coconut until it releases oil, then grinding it into a paste. This makes a very rich Malbi.

There are a number of variations in recipes for Malbi. Some recipes call for fresh spices like ginger, galingale and lemongrass. Some recipes do not use shallots. Some only use enough white pepper to compliment and emphasize the flavor of nutmeg, while others do the opposite. I even did my own experiment with spices to enhance the aroma of the Malbi I was making. I used 1 ½ tablespoons of readymade Garam Masala spice mix for each kilogram of beef. This resulted in what I felt was the perfect Malbi aroma.

I was speechless because this Malbi made with Garam Masala smelled exactly like the Malbi my aunt used to make. I suddenly felt as if I were back in Palembang, celebrating Lebaran with my family!

Whatever your choice of spice, really rich and tasty Malbi actually gets its flavor from the love it is imbued with by the cook. My love for this dish and its scent of nutmeg and other spices, along with the memories and happy feelings I pour into it each time I make it, has made Malbi my signature dish for every family celebration or other special occasions.