We’re cheating — Garri is not a sauce, and it’s technically more Nigerian than Ugandan, but it’s consumed in both countries. Read about Jerome Kugan’s nutty kuih raya experiment!

First Impressions
I love the name. I don’t really know what it means but it sounds beastly sexy. Garrr-ri. Like a fingernail ripping through a flimsy synthetic fabric.

Garri [wikipedia] doesn’t look very sexy though. It’s white and coarse, looks like desiccated coconut. And there’s not much of a smell. Garri is made from cassava, also known locally as tapioca, or ubi kayu.

We all know ubi kayu here. My mum used to tell stories about how everyone ate ubi kayu during the Japanese Occupation. It was peasant food, the most basic of basic. If you don’t have any money but own a bit of land, you  can grow ubi kayu because it’s easy to grow and you can harvest it any time of year and it can keep for a while. It’s the tropical equivalent of potatoes. Aka famine food.

Apart from rural types who can’t afford rice, I can’t think of why urban Malaysians would want to eat ubi kayu. It’s tasteless and heavy on the starch. LOL. The only reason to eat ubi kayu  nowadays would be nostalgia. I think of my own associations with this humble root and it’s a kampung childhood food.

The easiest way to eat garri is to add hot water to it to make a gluey paste-like dough called eba. Eba is eaten like staple food, with other dishes. Much like how you would eat boiled ubi kayu with sambal or kaya.

Making eba for the first time was fun. The plastic bag in which the garri came in didn’t have any instructions on it (but of course!). But apparently hot water is all that’s needed. And yep, that worked.

A friend and I tried out rolling balls of eba and eating it with some canned curry chicken and beef, and sambal ikan bilis. As expected, eba is bland, albeit with a weak sour-ish aftertaste. Unlike rice or bread, it doesn’t sop up the curry. In fact, it’s denser. Like ketupat or lemang, but less substantial.

As a lover of carbs, I loved eating the little balls of eba. What makes it fun is, I think, is the act of taking a bit of eba from the pot with your fingers and rolling it into a little ball and pressing it to make a little disc and then dunking that into the curry. It’s highly interactive, a bit messy, definitely something to be done among a group of friends.

The Experiment 
Several different factors conspired to point me in the direction of making fruit and nut crisps using garri. Since Hari Raya, the season of biskut and kuih-muih, was around the corner, I thought of getting in on some baking action. But baking isn’t really something I do very often, which is I think quite typical of most Malaysians.

Many Malaysians own ovens (not talking about the microwave), but a majority I think don’t really know how to use it. Most of us have it in the house to prepare the occasional roast or cake. But most of the time, it sits in the corner, disused and rusting, envying the microwave.  So this experiment was to get away from the stove and get some use out of the oven.

As I said earlier, I don’t bake often. So this recipe took a while to get right. And it still isn’t perfect.

First things first: dried fruit and dried nuts. Chop up any assortment of dried fruits — in my case, these were fig, apricot, raisin and cranberry. Not very Malaysian fruits. LOL. Chop up nuts. I used macadamia, pecan, walnut, pistachio and almond — just some things I found in the cupboard. Chop coarsely.

Dough: 4 parts garri, 2 parts dessicated coconut, 2 parts brown sugar, and 1 part plain flour in a mixing bowl. Add chopped fruit and nuts. Bring a mixture of milk and water to boil. Add liquid in bit by bit and beat the whole thing with a spoon. Pretty soon you’ll have a grey brown batter with the consistency of thick oatmeal porridge. That’s what you want.

Preheat your oven to about 125ºC. Butter up some greaseproof paper or foil on a baking pan, put little dollops of the dough on it and flatten it out a bit. Now it’s ready to go into the oven. Making these crisps were a bit of trial and error for me. The first two times I made it I turned the oven way up high and they got burnt. I forgot I was cooking with butter. Butter has a low burning point and if you’re not careful with the thermostat, butter will burn.

For the third time, I’m basically toasting them in the oven over a long time, in ten minute bursts (maybe 90 to 120 minutes oven time in total). (Note to self: maybe make the dough less wet next time). This allows the crisps to dry out slowly without burning. I turn them over frequently. And after a while, transfer them from the pan to a grill, which helps the crisps dry out faster.

Hmm… waiting, waiting, waiting. The slow baking process extracts a lot of flavour out of the ingredients. The desiccated coconut especially adds a lot of aroma to the cooking, and wafts of it greet me every time I open the oven door. But it’s testing my patience. Most of the meals I make for myself stretch for about half an hour max. This is only something I’ll pursue on a slow day. Waiting, waiting, waiting…

So, yes, after three tries and a lot of waiting time, it finally worked. At this point in time, it’s pretty safe to say that the results were not so Malaysian. It was more like a crispy oatmeal cookie. The best thing I can say about my experiment was that it at least it didn’t taste like something that fell out of a packet on the supermarket shelf. It’s homely and quaint. And well… because… let’s face it… I’m no baker. I tried my best. LOL.

Despite its unassuming looks, garri is quite a special ingredient. It’s not a bandwagon that Malaysians would jump on, but eating little balls of eba with canned curry is definitely something for those times when you’re thinking of some far away place that could’ve been home.

Ed: Yup, it’s no ‘Awesomesauce’ but it’s great with canned curry! Next — Michelle Tam’s Cerita Dongeng series begins on Monday (5 Sept) | Feedback:serambi@poskod.my