To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country's states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustrations: Foo Chern Hwan
Suggest a trip to Malacca, and it’s bound to have everyone tripping over everyone else, trying to suggest what to eat there – it’s one of those states that has built its reputation as a gastronomic paradise on a wide, varied base of dishes... from Hainanese chicken rice formed into balls, to Nyonya dishes like pong teh and Malay ones like asam pedas.
But one of the most unique aspects of the state is that it is the birthplace of the Kristang community, born of Malacca’s colonial heritage.
In the 15th century, Malacca was a bustling port, the hub for trade in South-East Asia and a powerful Sultanate in its own right.
In 1511, the landing of the Portuguese in the fabled port heralded the start of the colonisation of Malacca – and ultimately, the birth of a completely new ethnic group.
The roots of the Kristang community can be traced to the inter-marriages (common law or otherwise) between the Portuguese soldiers and sailors who colonised Malacca, and the locals living here. Five centuries later, you’ll find many of their descendants living in the enclave of the Portuguese Settlement in Ujong Pasir.
Also known as Portuguese Eurasians, the Kristangs speak an eponymous language also known as Malacca Portuguese or Papia Cristang, a creole that developed from language contact among the Portuguese, Malay and other local languages; their cuisine is spice-rich and varied, and has Portuguese, Malay, Indian and Chinese influences.
And emblematic of the Kristang culture and cuisine is debal (or devil) curry. It’s a fiery-looking dish, although the spiciness level varies from family recipe to family recipe. The common culinary thread that binds, and which gives is that distinct character, is the pronounced tang of vinegar and the bite of mustard seeds.
Its origin can be traced to another former Portuguese conquest, Goa in India. You’ll find similarities between Goan vindaloo and Kristang debal curry – in the use of white vinegar, turmeric and dried chillies, reflecting the Portuguese voyage. But this particular curry creation is also thickened with waxy candlenuts and fragranced with lemongrass and galangal, for a distinctive local flavour. Drawing on both its parent cultures for these influences, debal curry is a unique culinary mirror of the Kristang community itself.
A rich and complex curry, the other building blocks of debal are red chillies, shallots, garlic and ginger. The herbs and spices combine to form a rempah, which starts the curry off.
While many Kristangs swear by a pork-based debal, a chicken version is often enjoyed by those groups which cannot consume pork – particularly if you consume this dish in a restaurant. The other mainstay is potatoes; some cooks add vegetables such as cabbage to their own recipes.
Candlenuts – also called buah keras in Malay (and kemiri in Bahasa Indonesia), this is a bitter, oil-rich nut - and gets its English name from its high oil content, which makes it able to burn like a candle! Candlenuts are mildly toxic when raw, which is why they are always used in cooking, usually to add texture. They are key ingredients in Malay spice pastes, or rempah, for which they are pounded with other spice ingredients before being fried.
Mustard seeds – when cooked, mustard seeds have a pleasant, pungent bite, which lift the flavour of all sorts of dishes. They are also very rich in phyto-nutrients, minerals, vitamins – especially E and B-complex, with small amounts of A, C and K – and antioxidants.
Vinegar – white vinegar is fermented, and usually used in cooking. This adds a sharp, acidic edge to dishes and when used with chilli-rich dishes, often ups the fire ante!
More dishes from Malacca
To enjoy the skewered morsels that collectively make up satay celup, everyone gathers around a boiling pot of thick, spice-rich peanut gravy. The items on sticks are either raw or semi-cooked, with a good dunking into the gravy finishing the job; these can range from sliced pork liver to prawns to quail's eggs.
A Nonya dish of stewed chicken and potato, ayam pongteh gets its distinctive, sweet-salty flavour from a combination of fermented bean paste and palm sugar. The palm sugar adds a smoky-sweet note, and lots of depth. Some cooks add cabbage to their stews, or fragrance the thick, rich gravy with cinnamon and star anise – although the latter remains quite unusual.
Chicken rice balls
Served with either poached or roasted chicken and a tangy, garlicky chilli sauce, these chicken rice balls are moist – being shaped into balls somehow changes the texture of the rice – and full of flavour. This dish can be traced back to the Hainanese, who shaped chicken rice into balls to take with them when they travelled for the Ching Ming festival.