Well before our beloved curry puff epoch, there was epok epok. A humble and non-descript looking Malay curry puff stuffed with spicy potatoes. The first recorded history of the curry puff was the Polar version when an old Indian man sold his curried potato puff pastry recipe to Polar Café founder Mr Chan Hinky not long before the Japanese Occupation.
But Mdm Hajjah Bayah Ahmad grandmother was already serving epok epok when she was born in 1930. “Then, nobody sold it on the street. It was my nenek’s (granny) recipe. My mother and I sold it on a push cart stall in “central” near Kaki Bukit.”, Hajah Ayah also recalls the “central” area as a street food haven in the sixties.
My memories of this simple curried potato pastry go back to my primary education era in the 70’s and it was simply “currypup” to us then. A Malay man would cycle into our then St Michael’s School (now St Joseph’s Junior) with a glass and steel cabinet behind loaded with freshly fried currypup. It cost about five cents each then (nothing cost five cents today), and for regulars like me, who eyeball the chili sauce each time, he’ll inject a couple of shots of his spicy, sour yet sweet chilli sauce in to the cuurypup with his homemade nozzled capped Coca Cola chilli bottle. It was soulfood.
Unlike today’s curry puffs, which gives you that rich sensation with an over-buttered pastry and over-curried potatos, epok epok pasty was simply done with a hint of ghee (clarified butter) and plain flour. Even the potato fillings were different- marinated with a light chilli rempah devoid of curry powder. It was just a softly crispy yet not oily pastry holding in soft sambal potatoes. The corners of the epok epok were hand-nipped and irregular. Delightful.
This is a sensation you won’t easily find even in Malaysia and Indonesia. The closest they have in Roti Boyan, a huge pizza shaped potato pie done without much spices. And if the likes of Hajjah Ayah decides to call it quits, it’s sayonara to this aspect of our food culture. Thankfully, her young son Lokman Kassimdid not have it good in the corporate world, “My work in the advertising industry was very stressful la. Cannot tahan.”, so he permanently logged off his computer eight years ago and took on the mantle at his mother’s stall.
“I have no regrets. I enjoy this, no stress, no deadlines and no headaches”, and Lokman also reveals that each epok epok is done by hand and “so as long as I can, I will continue to hand make it.”. They shift on average a thousand pieces each day and every ball of dough is measured and rolled thinly through a little pasta press, one by one. By now, “ of course I can measure each dough ball just by feeling it in my hand”.
Which is what makes their epok epok stand out. The pastry is consistenly thin and crispy and not overly stuffed. The little pocket of air in their kentang(potato) epok epok adds to the lightness. Bite into it and you’ll know it’s not the curry puff we popularly know it to be today. They offer four versions which Hajjan Ayah claims is with a recipe faithful to her nenek’s, seventy years ago – potatoes, sardines, egg-potatoes and vegetables. Their vegetable version is rare, stuffed with towgay and chives and wok tossed in a sweet, spicy and vinegared chilli sauce. They don’t make it daily but there’s a good chance they’ll serve it on weekends.
I can easily cruise through five of these and then begin a meal. It helps that they make it a tad smaller than usual so two bites will do make it disappear. And remember to take Lokman’s advice, “wash it down with the perfect beverage partner- a hot cup of kopi.”