The first cookbook to showcase the culinary secrets of the Melaka Chetti


Chetti Melaka food is one of the last unknown Malaysian cuisines but with the introduction of the community’s first cookbook, it has finally been articulated and defined. — Photos: The Melaka Chetti Kitchen

In the heart of Melaka, amidst the dense conurbation and urbanisation, lies a tiny little village called Kampung Chetti. This village is the ancestral home of the Melaka Chetties – the original Peranakans (which means “child of the land”) of Malaysia.

The Chetties trace their roots over 500 years ago when Indian traders arrived in Melaka from the Coromandel Coast and married local women. The resulting match-ups resulted in a hybrid Hindu community who speak a kind of bazaar Malay and whose cultures and customs are derived of their ancestry, their surroundings and their evolution in the land they have called home for hundreds of years.

As the years have passed, the community’s numbers have dwindled, and estimates now indicate that only 30 families still live in Kampung Chetti, while the overall numbers of the entire Chetti community are thought to be somewhere in the region of 2,000, as migration and intermarriage with other ethnic groups has resulted in a rapidly vanishing population.

More worrying still is the culinary passing of the guard – or lack thereof. In the Chetti community, recipes traditionally passed down the matriarchal line and were closely guarded by the women in each family.

In the Melaka Chetti community, recipes always passed down the matriarchal line and women were the recipe-keepers of each generation.In the Melaka Chetti community, recipes always passed down the matriarchal line and women were the recipe-keepers of each generation.

As the community’s traditions loosened and its numbers dwindled, so too did the safe-keeping of these recipes. As a consequence, there remain only a handful of these recipe-bearers these days – many of whom are now in their seventies and eighties.

To compound this, little is known about the food of the community outside the community itself. Despite being around for hundreds of years, these recipes had remained elusively hidden and were now facing the threat of extinction. There was also the painful realisation that no one would remember or even know these foods once the current generation passed on. In this way, it would have died with them.

“We realised that if we don’t take steps to protect it right now, then the culinary history of the Melaka Chetti will be gone,” says Roy Anandthan Padiachee, a member of the Melaka Chetti community.

In the old days, Melaka Chetties always married within the community. Nowadays, intermarriage has resulted in a rapidly shrinking population which means few Chetties still cook traditional meals. In the old days, Melaka Chetties always married within the community. Nowadays, intermarriage has resulted in a rapidly shrinking population which means few Chetties still cook traditional meals.

It was this dire need to document the recipes, culture and culinary traditions of the community for posterity that propelled the Chetti community to collaborate with intrepid food writers and documentarians Julie Wong and Dr David Neo on the first Chetti Melaka cookbook.

How the collaboration came about

Neo is an academic at Universiti Teknologi Mara with a strong interest in Peranakan culture while Wong is a renowned food journalist and editor who has produced cookbooks like Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide To Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine.

Neo and Wong bonded over a love of Peranakan culture and both realised something needed to be done to conserve the embers of Chetti Peranakan culinary customs.

But the stars had to be aligned and Neo soon realised this when his initial efforts to reach out to the community were spurned.

Wong (left) and Neo were concerned that the Melaka Chetti culinary customs and recipes would become extinct and were elated to work with the community on this ground-breaking cookbook. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The StarWong (left) and Neo were concerned that the Melaka Chetti culinary customs and recipes would become extinct and were elated to work with the community on this ground-breaking cookbook. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The Star

Dejected, he approached the Chetties in Singapore, who agreed to work with him and Wong. The team even secured a Singapore National Heritage Trust grant for the project.

But once they started working with the community, Wong and Neo quickly sussed out that most Chetties in Singapore had entirely forgotten their roots and way of life.

“We interviewed about 20 Chetties in Singapore and they had a deep sense of identity crisis and displacement. I think a lot of them had converted to Christianity as well (Chetties are typically Hindu) and so even getting the recipes, we felt it was kind of here and there,” says Neo.

Eventually the entire project fell apart and this time, the timing aligned beautifully as the Chetties in Melaka were actively looking to put together a cookbook, having realised that time was running out very quickly as the matriarchs in the community were all ageing.

“We wanted to create a group that would have the right energy and chemistry because we knew this was going to be a long-haul project as we didn’t just want to do a recipe book; we wanted to do a culinary history book,” says Roy, who became the project director of the cookbook.

Thankfully, the initial seed money was generously sponsored by a senior member of the Chetti community – Palanee Maniam Subramaniam, which provided the financial impetus to get the project off the ground.

Roy says the community very much wanted to do a cookbook as they realised that once the current generation passed on, the recipes and culinary customs of the Melaka Chetties would die with them. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The StarRoy says the community very much wanted to do a cookbook as they realised that once the current generation passed on, the recipes and culinary customs of the Melaka Chetties would die with them. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The Star

After three years of toil and graft, the fruits of their collective labour were realised with the release of the brand-new cookbook, The Melaka Chetti Kitchen: Culinary Journey Of 500 Years – the first cookbook to document the recipes and culinary rituals of the Chetties in Melaka.

Putting the cookbook together

In the early stages, Roy, Wong and Neo worked together to put a team of recipe collaborators who would be able to cohesively present the cultural identify that formed the heart of Chetti food.

The four key recipe contributors from the Chetti community include Nancy Goh, a Nyonya who married into the Padiachee Chetti family in 1967 and quickly mastered the art of Melaka Chetti cuisine.

Then there is Tanapakiam Ratnasamy, a true Melaka Chetti who is an expert in traditional sweet treats; and G. Santha Chitty who grew up in Kampung Chetti and assumed the mantle of family cook upon her mother’s passing.

(From far left) Indrani was one of the recipe contributors of the book, but sadly passed away before the book was published. The book is dedicated to her. (From far left) Indrani was one of the recipe contributors of the book, but sadly passed away before the book was published. The book is dedicated to her.

The final contributor – Indrani Pillay Sathasavam Pillay – was an accomplished Chetti home cook who sadly passed away before the publication of the book. The book is dedicated to her.

After identifying the recipe contributors, Wong – who is also the editor of the book – asked them to create a longlist of recipes for inclusion in the book and then work on categories that these recipes could be slotted into.

Because the book was the first-of-its-kind to document Chetti recipes, it was imperative to Wong that the recipes were catalogued in a way that made sense to the community and reflected their culinary identity. She herself didn’t interfere too much in their decision-making process.

“Like any kind of documentation, you need to go through a process. We started with making a list of all the dishes that the Melaka Chetties consider to be typical Melaka Chetti food. This took quite some time as they debated and agonised over the list,” says Wong.

“What to leave out was excruciatingly painful as they were quite protective of the culture but we had to leave out some recipes due to page and cost constraints. But we made sure that the uniquely Melaka Chetti recipes and recipes that are important to the culture are in the book,” she adds.

Although about 60% of Melaka Chetti cuisine leans towards Malay-influenced food, the community still has traces of its Indian heritage via dishes like mutton curry. Although about 60% of Melaka Chetti cuisine leans towards Malay-influenced food, the community still has traces of its Indian heritage via dishes like mutton curry.

“The interesting thing is, once the list was decided, we could then analyse the cuisine and see some patterns and categories and how best to fit them in together. I didn’t want to do the usual of categorising the cookbook according to meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) or meat types (poultry, meat, seafood) and was very pleased when Santha Chitty came up with the final categorisation according to genres like Pickles, Sambals, Asam Pedas, Masak Lemak and Our Indian Heritage, etc.

“Immediately you could see what their cuisine is all about by scanning the categories: mostly Malay food with Indian and Chinese contributions. Scattered among these were the uniquely Melaka Chetti dishes,” says Wong.

The book

The Melaka Chetti Kitchen: Culinary Journey Of 500 Years is a 304-page tome with over 150 recipes that offers a bird’s eye view into the culinary customs and practices that have become the foundational structure of Chetti cuisine.

Wong and Neo have also taken great pains to illustrate the various ties that bind – from the Malay heritage (or mother culture) that has formed and moulded the Chetti predilection for ingredients like lemongrass, belacan and pandan leaf and tastes that lean towards spicy sambals, sour asam pedas and lemak-riddled pindangs and lauks.

The book took three years to research, write and develop and is the first and only cookbook on the food of the Melaka Chetties.The book took three years to research, write and develop and is the first and only cookbook on the food of the Melaka Chetties.

It is also clear that Chetti cuisine still derives from the communities’ Indian ancestry, with rasam, dhal and mutton curry still a common feature in the Chetti recipe arsenal alongside influences from the Chinese Peranakans, like soy sauce, ginger and tofu.

“It’s a truly muhibah Malaysian cuisine: Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours mingle at the same table. I was surprised that such a small community has such an evolved, rich and wide repertoire of recipes,” says Wong.

The book also identifies recipes that have become unique to the Chetti Melaka table (these recipes are indicated with a star sign).

This includes dishes like sambal terung, sambal timun santan, lauk pindang ikan, sambal urap kulit timun, ikan goreng rebus cuka, kueh kanda kasturi and pengat keledek, to name a few.

Kanda Kasturi is an example of a rare Melaka Chetti dessert that is no longer made in many Chetti homes.Kanda Kasturi is an example of a rare Melaka Chetti dessert that is no longer made in many Chetti homes.

Perhaps the facet of Chetti culinary culture that is most interesting as expressed through the book is ancestor worship and how this connects to food. This is most prevalent in Parchu Bhogi, which is observed on the eve of the Ponggal (harvest) festival.

For Melaka Chetties, Parchu Bhogi overrides Deepavali in terms of importance and involves the women in the family cooking up to 21 dishes to serve to the ancestors.

The dishes are arranged on odd numbered banana leaves (it used to be at least nine) with nasi lemak kukus being a central highlight.

This is complemented by dishes like udang goreng cili garam, sambal belimbing telur ikan, sambal timun santan and kari kambing, among a range of others.

Prayers are then offered and the ancestors are invited to partake in the offering.

Parchu Bhogi is important in a culinary sense because it connects the Chetties to their past and also ties them to their culinary structures. If a dish is offered up for prayer, it is important to the Chetties and its survival in each family is consequently protected, ensuring continuity at least so as long the tradition remains.

“There is a fear that Parchu Boghi will disappear because you can count the diminishing number of families observing it.

Parchu Bhogi is still keenly observed by the Melaka Chetties and displays how food is interwoven with ancestor worship. Parchu Bhogi is still keenly observed by the Melaka Chetties and displays how food is interwoven with ancestor worship.

“And the families are cutting back in terms of the number of banana leaves that they serve food on for Parchu, because it’s a lot of effort and money involved. And in Singapore, the Chetties there don’t even practise this anymore,” says Neo.

The intention

Ultimately, all the collaborators on this cookbook have the same goal: to draw attention to the culture and culinary practices of the oldest Peranakans of the land and ensure the survival of these heritage foods that many Malaysians have never even heard of.

“Melaka Chetti cuisine is one of the last great unknown Malaysian cuisines. The Melaka Chetties have been unwilling to share their recipes until now. I believe that the women we worked with are the last generation of Melaka Chetties who learned to cook at the lap of their mothers and other womenfolk,” says Wong.

One of the hopes of the Chetti community is that having a cookbook will propel the younger generation of Chetties to continue cooking the heritage meals of the community. One of the hopes of the Chetti community is that having a cookbook will propel the younger generation of Chetties to continue cooking the heritage meals of the community.

“So when you follow the recipes and cook the dishes at home and share them with others and talk about it, you will be helping to keep the food alive.

“So we all have a part to play in popularising the cuisine and introducing them in our own kitchens to keep this precious heritage going,” Wong adds.

The Melaka Chetti Kitchen: Culinary Journey Of 500 Years is priced at RM159.90 and available at Czip Lee bookstore in Bangsar and for pre-order on www.melakachetti.com. Proceeds from the book will be channelled to the Melaka Chetti Heritage Association of Malaysia to establish an education fund for deserving Melaka Chetti children.

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