The Spice of Time
In the Malaysian state of Malacca, long mingled cultures have yielded a pungent, delicious cuisine
From Saveur, September-October 2001
On the sultry southwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, traditions linger like tropical heat. So at five in the morning, in the luminous neon-blue of the equatorial sunrise, Mohammad Ali bin Tengah, a Malay fisherman in his 50s with sea-worn skin and sunburned eyes, steps into his small boat, pushes it out of the mangrove swamp where he docks it, and casts his homemade net in the Strait of Malacca, as he does every day—and as his family has done for centuries. It is a timeless scene, this not-so-old man and the sea: bin Tengah, known by his nickname Mad Zan (Mad is short for Mohammad), afloat near his village of Kampung Kuala Linggi in the state of Malacca, patiently awaiting his share of the ocean’s bounty. I watch as he lights a cigarette—Mad Zan favors clove-flavored Indonesian kreteks—and begins to sing a folk song. Perhaps his tune will help summon the morning’s harvest. Perhaps it will just help pass the time.
When I first came to Malaysia in 1982, young and broke and toting an army-navy backpack, I’d been in Indonesian Kalimantan for three months and was visiting Malaysia mostly because I’d found myself longing for modern conveniences that Kalimantan lacked—things like paved roads and electricity that didn’t fizzle out every hour. But over the course of a few weeks, traveling from peninsular Malaysia’s fertile lowland south to its hilly, jungled north, I discovered something far more satisfying about the country: its food. In my travels, I devoured Indian-influenced coconut milk curries; vegetable-stuffed Chinese spring rolls drizzled with peanut-chile sauce; and Malay laksa, a noodle soup that tasted of chiles, salt fish, and kaffir lime leaves. My palate came alive. Malaysia was my France.
In the 19 years since that trip, I’ve been back numerous times to this nation of 23 million residents, happy to see the Malaysian friends I’ve made and happier yet to eat their emphatic, colorful food. Peninsular Malaysia’s fare is a rare confluence of flavors and cooking styles, the creation of a population consisting of Malays (ethnically and linguistically related to Indonesian Sumatrans, they predate everyone else on the peninsula apart from the indigenous Orang Asli), Chinese, Indians, and intermarriages of all these groups with one another—and with the descendents of European colonialists.
Last year I visited once again, this time focusing on the cradle of the country’s history, the southwestern state of Malacca. Respected as model of racial concord within Malaysia, Malacca is also admired for the vitality of its individual cuisines and for the way those cuisines have mingled over the centuries, along with the cultures that produced them.
It’s 8:30 in the morning, and I’m about 20 miles down the coast from Mad Zan’s village, working my way through the pasar besar, or central market, in Malacca’s capital city, which is also called Malacca. My companion is Jo Chua—a serene woman in her early 40s who has been recommended to me by a friend in Kuala Lumpur as a gifted local cook. Treading through slick, inch-deep muck, Chua and I squeeze past Portuguese-Malay housewives exchanging cooking secrets with Chinese spice vendors, while Malay women, hair covered by Islamic tudung, bargain with Indian merchants for bundles of wild fiddlehead ferns (probably eaten here since hunting-and-gathering days) and tofu (which Chinese traders likely introduced only a few hundred years back).
Business is conducted here in a crazy quilt of languages, including Bahasa Melayu (Malaysia’s national tongue), English, Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, and an archaic Portuguese-Malay hybrid spoken nowhere else, Cristang. But never mind. Food, glorious food, is the market’s lingua franca. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. Here are seductive aromas of cumin and just-grilled fish, of sweet, ripe tropical fruit and freshly grated coconuts—delicious smells that require no translation whatsoever.
Chua prowls the slippery aisles, prodding heaps of green and red chiles that glisten like emeralds and rubies (“Too mild”), picking through overripe tamarind pods (“Too sweet”), and finally scooping up some thumb-siz, purple-black eggplants and, as a gift she’ll drop by later to the aunty who taught her how to cook, a bunch of just-picked baby kai lan (Chinese broccoli), dark green and rich with the smell of the soil.
Chua’s Malaccan heritage—and her abiding respect for the food and customs of her ancestors—runs deep. She can trace her family’s lineage in this city, its cramped streets perpetually bustling with commerce, back to 1765, when one of her forebears arrived here from China. Others in her community can track their families back even farther, to the early 1400s, when merchants from China first courted local Malay women, creating the region’s Peranakan (also known as Straits Chinese) culture—in which the man were called Babas and the women, Nyonyas. The Peranakans were famous throughout Asia, especially in the 19th century, their halcyon days, for their fantastic wealth and their culinary prowess. Nyonya dishes, including spirited stir-fries and bright curries, were a marriage of Chinese and Southeast Asian aesthetics, a boisterous anthology of taste. Today Peranakan sulture is an important presence in Penang and Singapore as well as in Malacca, and Nyonya cuisine is known worldwide (restaurants offering loose interpretations of Nyonya food can be found from New York to Sydney). Yet in Malacca, it shares the table with traditional Malay fare—similar to Nyonya but bolder and more dependent on coconut milk, chiles, and belacan, a dried, salted shrimp paste—as well as with Indian-Malay and Portuguese-Malay cooking, which diverge subtly from mainstream Malay food by making use of ingredients like cumin and vinegar, respectively.
Seven hundred years ago, Malacca was a simple Malay fishing hamlet not unlike Mad Zan’s village of Kampung Kuala Linggi, barely known or spoken of beyond its tiny confines. With the arrival, at the end of the 14th century, of Parameswara, a fugitive prince from Sumatra, all that changed. Parameswara began transforming the hamlet into a city, and the strategic location of its port, which attracted trading ships en route to China, India, and the Spice Islands, aided him enormously. It wasn’t long before Cheng Ho, a Chinese admiral, brought gifts to Parameswara from the Ming emperor, along with an imperial promise to protect Malacca from its enemies—namely, the Siamese, to the north, who coveted the city’s burgeoning wealth. The visit sparked a long-term friendship with the Chinese and ultimately, spawned the Baba-Nyonyas.
Malacca grew far beyond city size to claim a large portion of what is now Malaysia, becoming the richest and most cosmopolitan region of early-16th-century Southeast Asia; its capital became known as “the city where the winds meet.” But there was trouble brewing to the west. Hungry for control of the spice route, the Portuguese arrived in 1511 and sacked Malacca. They remained for 130 years, bringing both Christianity and European “finesse” (read: colonialist greed) to the state. The Portuguese were followed by other Europeans who wanted a piece of Malacca’s pie—the Dutch, who were already governing the nearby islands that came to be known as the Dutch East Indies (and, later, Indonesia) and who ruled Malacca for almost two centuries, and the British, who stuck around until Malaysia’s long-overdue independence in 1957.
After Jo Chua and I reach her home and rid ourselves of the market mud we’ve accumulated, she invites me to watch as she goes about making a Nyonya meal that incorporates all the region’s key ingredients. The menu consists of ayam pong teh, a delicate sweet-salty chicken stew with taucheo, Malaysia’s answer to miso; nasi kemuli, a clove- and cinnamon-scented rice dish; terong pachlis, the little eggplants from the market simmered in dried-shrimp stock; udang asam, stir-fried, tamarind-marinated prawns; sambal belacan, an essential Malaysian condiment made from chiles and belacan; acar, a crunchy fresh pickle of cucumbers, dried shrimp, pineapple, shallots, and slivered chiles; and mounds of steamed jasmine rice.
Chua’s modesty prevents her from proclaiming herself the excellent cook that she is, but she moves through the kitchen with the kind of ease and grace that comes only from experience and confidence, chopping ingredients and grinding spices into paste. Spice pastes, or rempah, are the spine of Malaysian cooking. Typically concocted of chiles, garlic, onions, fresh turmeric, and belacan, rempah are gently fried as the first step in the preparing of many dishes, a techniques that lends flavorful depth to innumerable foods.
Cooking is not the only way Chua honors her predecessors. As a member of the Malacca Historical Research Society, she has spent much of the past few years helping to preserve the architectural integrity of Malacca’s development-threatened Chinatown. Along with her husband and her parents, she has also overseen the restoration of Malaysia’s oldest place of worship, the Cheng Hoon Teng Taoist-Buddhist temple, constructed in the early 17th century.
Still, it’s cooking that offers Chua her most immediate connection to the past. “It allows me to communicate directly with my ancestors—to see what they were thinking, to know what they were about,” she says as she smashes a palmful of chiles in a mortar. “My family has few recorded recipes, so we must protect our food for tomorrow, before McDonald’s wins the war and my son has no idea what it tastes like. If I don’t take the time to do this, who will?” With that, Chua serves her meal, a testament to the past and a prayer for the future, to seven of her closest family members and me. From the spicy yet comforting nasi kemuli to the tart-hot-sweet acar, these dishes produce a pungent harmony of tastes.
Later that day, I pay a visit to an acquaintance of Chua’s from the research society, Sundaram Palani Padiachee, a Hindu in his 40s of Indian-Malay descent. Padiachee is the unofficial but fervent spokesperson for the Chetti Settlement, a section of Malacca city. “Chetties, like myself, are the descendents of Indian traders from Orissa and are probably the first outsiders who came to the rural villages of the Malayan peninsula,” he says, his brow wet in the heat, as we stroll through Chetti Settlement. “But because we intermarried and assimilated with the Malays, Chinese, and Baba-Nyonyas so quickly, our culture, which is like not other in Malaysia, has never been given the historical attention that other groups have received. Now we number only in the hundreds.”
Padiachee’s corner of the city is not the Malacca of noisy scooters and mercantile crush. It is the capital’s gentle face, a maze of winding, quiet, leafy streets that sometimes lead to Hindu temples thick with the smoke of joss sticks or to grassy lots filled with groups of kids flying paper kites. Padiachee wants to make sure it stays this way, he tells me, so he is attempting to help his neighborhood acquire protected status—recognition that may bring about cultural-preservation funding. But right now, his appetite piqued by the noonday sun, Padiachee confesses that he is thinking in more prosaic terms: he is thinking of lunch.
At Padiachee’s home, where a walkway lined with bonsai leads to the front door, his wife, Prema, a soft-spoken Malaccan-born Chinese woman, has prepared a simple, classic Chetti meal: lauk haram jadah (the name means bastard mix in Malay and makes Padiachee blush like a schoolboy), a coconut milk curry of long beans, okra, eggplant, daikon, and ikan bilis (crisp-dried, mildly salty anchovies). Eaten with rice and cautious dabs of sambal belacan, the dish is a celebration of tender-to-the-tooth produce. “Taste this,” Padiachee intones, “because soon it may be gone.” And soon it is, in a rush of joyful eating.
That night, in nearby Kampung Portugis, a well-kept neighborhood of modest cement houses on the edge of the sea, I call on Gerard Fernandis, a noted Portuguese-Malay historian (and also a member of the research society). The Portuguese-Malays, Fernandis, explains, are yet another dwindling Malaccan culture. “We are not many, but we are proud,” he tells me as we walk to his house from the Saturday night mass we’ve just attended.
Centuries ago, back when the area was ruled by the Portuguese, overlords concerned about security risks among their ranks encouraged settlers to take local wives. The plan was successful—so successful, in fact, that thousands married Malays and a new people was born. At present only a few thousand Portuguese-Malays, most of whom adhere to Roman Catholicism, remain in the state, but their traditions live on through their rich, soul-satisfying cuisine, which includes emblematic dishes like curry diabo (literally, devil curry), a chicken dish with chiles, and semur, a European-style beef and vegetable stew Asianized with star anise and cinnamon.
But in Fernandis’s kitchen, his ancestral fare is taking the night off. I watch as Fernandis and his Hokkien-descended wife, Jenny, together make two of their favorite dishes: wheat noodles stir-fried with shrimp, chicken, and choy sum greens; and tofu topped with minced pork and plenty of finely chopped garlic. The food couldn’t be any less Portuguese-Malay—in fact, it’s more southern Chinese, in keeping with Jenny’s family origins—but the meal is delicious and exemplifies the relaxed way in which Malaccans share their culinary traditions with one another; a fine local cook can comfortably dip into any of the region’s culinary styles. After all, when food tastes this good, who cares who cooked it first?
On an unusually stifling afternoon a few days later, back in Kampung Kuala Linggi, I am enjoying lunch with Mad Zan—whom I first met when I knocked on his door, looking for directions to the local dock—and his family. It is a colorful, nourishing repast built around his morning’s catch, and not so different from the meals I’ve had with Chua, Padiachee, and Fernandis: sambal undang, a fiery shrimp-and-chile dish; asam pedas, an equally blistering fish curry, fragrant with lemongrass; a chile-spiked omelette; and sayur sawi, wok-fried Chinese greens with minced shrimp, garlic, onions, and yet more tasty, jabbingly hot chiles. The fresh, vigorous flavors both cool me down and perk me up, and I realize that these dishes are probably the same ones that graced Mad Zan’s ancestors’ tables before anyone else showed up on these shores, the same foods that taste of sea spray and spice and, most important, of Malacca and its long past. “You see, old spirits don’t die here,” says the fisherman. “They just end up at the table waiting to be fed.”
Copyright © James Oseland, 2011. All rights reserved.