The phrase ‘ikut hati kau’, or ‘follow your heart’ underlies the way we cook and sometimes, how we live.

Food from a seafaring family
of Semakau

The distinct flavours of our food draw from the many influences of the Malay Nusantara. However, vegetables and seafood were the few staples for people from the maritime communities. 

While the food we gathered was mainly for sustenance, it was often prepared by the loving hands of our grandparents who learnt the art of cooking over an open fire. Our parents have become the gatekeepers of the way we cook, ensuring the dishes are prepared in the best way possible.

The phrase ‘ikut hati kau’, or ‘follow your heart’, underlies how we cook and sometimes, how we live. We are opening our hearts and kitchens, warmly inviting you to experience the food and the story of our family.


(black squid)

With an oil lamp in our sampan, we sailed into the open sea in the middle of the night in search of squids. An interesting fact – squids are attracted to light, making it easier to catch them in the dark.

Perhaps our family’s best dish, this can only be made when fresh squids are caught. Cooked till tender, it is immersed in a thick, savoury, spicy black sauce. The ingredients include garlic, dried chilli, onions and of course, squid ink.


(spicy asam fish)

Often, we let the catch of the day determine what we were having for dinner. Most of the time, it is our old time favourite dish, Asam Pedas.

We are no strangers to fiery heat – every dish that we cook is usually spicy. Asam Pedas is essentially a spicy, seasonal fish dish with ladyfingers cooked, in a hearty broth. It is best served over warm rice and with a dash of kicap manis (sweet soy sauce).


(flower crabs in lemak)

Crabs are often caught with traps. Scraps of fish parts are set in the traps and placed in the water strategically. The time of the day, the tidal conditions and the location are important to yield the best results.

Flower crab is a favourite among many of us because its shell is relatively softer, making it easier to crack open. These crabs are cooked in a rich lemak gravy that elevates the sweet taste of crab meat.

We don’t have this often, but when we do, it’s a riot.


(prawns in sambal)

Many times, we fought over the last remaining sambal prawn. When all was gone, we paired the leftover sambal with boiled eggs and rice because that’s how delicious it was. There is no secret to this dish, but a deep appreciation for spicy sambal and the freshness of the ingredients.

We love this dish. 


(pineapple in gulai broth)

Our parents would fondly share their visits to the provision shop, and Ah Kau was the name they remember. There weren’t any supermarkets, but this man was the go-to person for all cooking essentials including fruits and vegetables.

For this dish, the pineapples are cooked in a prawn broth and simmered till perfection. It is tangy, spicy and addictive. Serve this with rice, crispy fried fish and belacan


(chut chut in lemak)

As our parents would share, to create this dish, they’d have to scour the sungei (river) at the back of the island for the siputs. It’ll take them about a day collecting them, but it was worth it.

The savoury and spicy lemak gravy adds a kick to this dish, especially when slurping on the siputs. Have this with rice and some belacan, just like we do.

Kacang Panjang
Asam Rebus

(long beans in asam broth)

Ah Kau, the provision shop owner, was described as a friendly man. Almost every morning, he would take his sampan to the mainland. Pasir Panjang was where he’d receive supplies like fresh vegetables to be sold at Pulau Semakau.

This simple, heartwarming dish always reminds us of home. The long beans are simmered in an asam broth and served with rice, often paired with crispy fried fish and belacan.

© 2020 Orang Laut

Special thanks to TodayOnline, Mothership, Zao Bao, Women’s Weekly and Island Nation for sharing our story. Subscribe to our blog.