A large feast is laid out on a table in Wenila Nadarajan’s home in Kampung Chetti, Melaka. Wenila smiles as she introduces half a dozen foreign-sounding dishes to a crowd of people who have travelled mostly from Kuala Lumpur to savour the dishes of the unique Chetti community, also known as Peranakan Indians.
“I learnt how to make all these dishes from my mother-in-law and she learnt from her sister-in-law who is Chetti. When we enter this house, we must learn the Chetti cuisine,” says Wenila, an Indian from Indonesia who integrated into the community after her marriage.
Her late husband K. Nadarajan Raja was on the temple committee at Kampung Chetti as well as the secretary of the Chetti Museum. By all accounts, he was a veritable font of information on Chetti culture, including its varied culinary tapestry. Wenila is hoping to continue his work of preserving and introducing Chetti tradition to the world at large.
The Chetti Peranakan community has its roots in South Indian traders who hailed from the Coromandel Coast and settled in Melaka in the 15th and 16th centuries during the height of the Melaka Sultanate. The word “Chetti” itself means “merchant”.
These traders married local women of Javanese, Batak, Chinese and Malay descent and established a community of their own. According to the website Melakachetti.com, there were 300 to 400 Chetties living during the time of the Melaka sultanate. One of the most famous Chetties during that period was Naina Chattu, who achieved the position of Bendahara and purportedly minted the city’s first coins.
The Chetti community’s long-standing presence in the country over centuries has solidified into a very unique culture, which includes a hybrid language that has Malay as its root, but also includes a sprinkling of Tamil and Hokkien words.
“So it’s a bit like the Baba Malay, but it’s their own version of Malay with a few Tamil lone words and English words plus because of their proximity to the Baba Nyonyas in Melaka, there are some similarities in terms of language and they also borrow some words that are Hokkien,” says Dr Eric Olmedo, the principal research fellow at Institut Kajian Etnik (Kita) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
What has remained intact from their South Indian ancestors is the community’s devout Hindu religious system, which prevails to this day.
In Melaka, there are a number of temples dedicated to the Chetti community, including the Sri Muthu Mariamman temple, which was established in 1822 and is located within Kampung Chetti itself in Melaka.
“The religious rituals are the closest to India, in the sense that it’s the cultural link to the motherland, the prayers are still done in Tamil by the priest but, apart from that occasion, they converse in Chetti Malay,” says Olmedo.
Interestingly, because the original South Indian traders arrived from India so many centuries ago, most Chetties cannot trace any ancestors or relatives back to India.
This, in turn, means that until a few decades ago, efforts to preserve the sanctity of the community remained strong, simply because the Chetties have always found it easier to relate to one another.
This familial structure was bolstered by intra-marriages within the community – which was a way of life, until modernity set in.
“Even up to the 1950s and 60s, we were still preserving our identity. Everybody married within the village because those days, marriages among Chetties were arranged based on mothers’ preferences, so young Chetties had no participation or choice in whom they married. But then the arranged marriage system fell apart as time progressed and people started falling in love and choosing their own spouses, so from the 1980s onwards, a lot of people married outside the community,” says Raja Jan, a Chetti who has lived in Kampung Chetti his whole life.
In modern times, the community has shrunk drastically as those who have married outside the community over the years have gradually forgotten the customs or adopted the customs of the community they married into.
In fact, a 2007 census taken by the Chetti community in Malaysia showed that only 321 people identified themselves as Peranakan Chetti.
Additionally, according to Olmedo, records from the temple trustees show that in Kampung Chetti itself (considered the birthplace of the Chetties), there are only 25 houses, the majority of which host Chetti families. On average, this means there are likely to be only slightly over 100 Chetties currently living in the village.
Food in the community
One of the most interesting aspects of the Chetti community is their food, which borrows from both their Indian ancestry as well as their Malaysian homeland, and has developed over time into a singular new culinary style that has become distinctive to the community.
“It takes the best of Malay and Indian cuisine, but the result of the mixing is the creation of a new culinary system,” confirms Olmedo.
Chetties serve different kinds of food for different occasions, including Deepavali, Parchu Ponggal, Parchu Buah-Buahan (where seasonal fruits like durian and mangosteen are offered) and Naik Bukit (where Chetties visit the gravesites of deceased relatives and offer food and incense).
Of these festivals, Bogi Parchu (celebrated the day before Ponggal) is one of the most important occasions for the community and involves cooking up a large selection of dishes (sometimes as many as 16) that are then placed on banana leaves and served on the floor for ancestral worship – a practice seemingly imbibed from the Chinese community.
“Ponggal is very important to us. We fast for a month between December and January and then we celebrate Ponggal. And while the Ponggal celebrated by Indians involves offering prayers to the deities, the Chetties pray to our ancestors.
“Before Ponggal, we normally clean our corridors and put flowers outside as we believe our ancestors are coming back to visit us – at least that is our belief. Some people even have dreams of their long-dead parents during this period!” says Raja.
The food served for these prayers includes nasi lemak, kangkung, terung ikan masin, timun santan, chicken curry and mutton curry – and marks one of the few occasions when more typical Indian curries are made.
Otherwise, the Chetties’ daily food incorporates the use of mostly local staples.
“Our food uses local ingredients like serai and a lot of coconut milk, so we don’t use a lot of curry powder or other Indian spices. Those days, the mothers in the families were local women so the food that evolved was influenced by the female ancestors’ recipes until now,” says Wenila.
Examples of Chetti dishes include meals like sambal telur belimbing, a fabulously fiery meal that makes use of fish roe sourced from ikan parang (wolf herring), which is interspersed with belimbing buluh in what proves to be a wondrous marriage of flavours.
“I think a really unique Chetti dish is the sambal telur belimbing. Ikan parang is an expensive fish, but the texture will be different if you use other fish. This fish roe is crunchier and bubblier. And it’s a 100% authentic Chetti dish, so you can’t find it anywhere else,” says Wenila.
Urap kulit timun is another interesting dish that is essentially kerabu made with julienned cucumber skin, belimbing buluh, coconut and dried prawns in what proves to be a riotous, fun textural odyssey that offers bits of crunch and a tropical underbelly, courtesy of the coconut.
Pindang ikan parang, meanwhile, is a deliciously spicy offering from the community, that features fish cooked in copious amounts of coconut milk.
There is also timun cili cuka, which serves up cucumbers interlaced with chillies and dried prawns – a light, zesty offering with hints of fire lurking in each mouthful.
Unlike the Peranakan Chinese, the Chetties do not have any restaurants championing their cuisine, so the only way to try homemade Chetti food is to be invited to a Chetti home.
In the past, the women of the household were the keepers of these ancestral recipes, which were typically passed down through the generations. Many had limited education and therefore spent most of their time in the kitchen.
“Last time, they taught their daughters how to cook because when these girls grew up, their in-laws wanted to know if they could cook or not. So in the past, girls seldom went to school. The elders would say, ‘Even if I send you to school, when you come back home, you have to come to the ‘dapur school’,” says Raja, laughing.
In current times, as many members of the Chetti community have married outside their Peranakan lineage, their culinary identity has weakened somewhat as they have assimilated into the modern world.
Which is why people like Wenila and her 82-year-old Chinese mother-in-law Sow San @ Kamala are so integral to the community’s survival. Both are outsiders who married into the community and adopted all the local customs, including the culinary practices.
“I was a tailor who lived in the neighbourhood when I met and fell in love with my husband many years ago. We got married in 1961 when I was 24 and I lived in my husband’s family home after that. There, I learnt how to cook from my sister-in-law who taught me all about Chetti food. And now I’ve taught Wenila,” says the spirited Kamala.
Wenila says she fully intends to teach her three children all the Chetti dishes once they are old enough to learn. But she isn’t so sure these ancient meals will survive the treacherous passage of time, given the community’s fast dwindling numbers.
“Whatever we cook during the prayers, I think that can still be maintained as long as the young generation want to learn. So maybe it can survive another 20 or 30 years. Beyond that, I don’t know,” she says.
Wenila’s thoughts are echoed by Olmedo who says the community is in danger of completely dying out in the next generation, taking with them centuries of history and a culinary identity that has remained intact till now.
“With industrialisation and modernisation, there are almost no intra-marriages within the community. And the younger generation want to have careers and travel, so they are moving out of Kampung Chetti and marrying outside the community and once they do, they will progressively forget about the culture and come back only for festivals and to visit their parents so the inter-generational transmission is not really conducted, so the heritage is lost and it could be as fast as the next generation,” he says.
To savour an authentic Chetti meal in Kampung Chetti, Melaka, contact Wenila at email@example.com.
URAP KULIT TIMUN
Skin from 2 cucumbers, cut into short strips
100g geragau (dried shrimp), washed and toasted
100g grated coconut
4 belimbing buluh, each cut into 4 pieces and sliced
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 red chillies, sliced
Toss everything together and add salt to taste.
SAMBAL TELUR BELIMBING
For blending together
3 lemongrass stalks
3 red chillies
4 or 5 onions
100g fish roe from ikan parang
6 belimbing buluh, cut into 3 pieces each
100g small fresh shrimp
200ml coconut milk
In a large pot, add the blended ingredients and the rest of the ingredients and cook together till it reaches boiling point. Add salt to taste and serve hot.