Mention Melaka and most, if not everyone would immediately think of it as one of the important enclaves of baba-nyonya culture. Indeed, it is exactly this trading post which bore roots to the unique community formed through what is commonly thought of as inter-communal matrimony between the local folk and those who came in search of opportunities or shelter. Legends and folklore about Cheng Ho’s massive fleet and even a Princess Hang Li Po from the Ming Dynasty echoed through the centuries, stories told and retold down the generations.
Lesser known and often cast in shadow however, was the colonisation of Melaka by the Portuguese around 500 years ago, from which yet another unique community emerged which is known to some as “Cristangs” owing to their embrace of the Catholic-Christian faith that spread to this part of the world with the missionaries that came, or otherwise, simply as “Portuguese Melakans” honouring the special bond forged between the earliest European settlers to this part of the world and the local folk. An extraordinary culture developed as a result of this interaction, and of course, a cuisine which conglomerates all the different elements that arise out of this remarkable exchange that spanned more than a century. On our recent trip to Melaka, we were given a good introduction of this interesting cuisine through dining at Big Ben’s Restaurant Cafe located in the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka, a luncheon which I would fondly remember for a long time to come.
Making Malay and Nyonya kueh is a really colourful game of mix and match. Using a standard list of ingredients, one could come up with a large variety of these sweet delectable snacks and desserts which are so immensely popular and enjoyed by many. For example, gula melaka is commonly used in traditional Malay, Indonesian and Peranakan desserts and its employment into these snacks is literally endless. If it is chopped finely and used as a filling with a dough made with sweet potatoes and glutinous rice flour, it becomes ondeh ondeh as it is known in Singapore and Malaysia or Klepon in Indonesia, but when it is wrapped and steamed in a rice flour batter and banana leaves, it becomes Kueh Bongkong. Another steamed variation with barely reconstituted rice flour which remains grainy gives us Putu Piring. If the gula melaka is cooked with freshly grated coconut, it becomes the filling for Pulut Inti if steamed glutinous rice is used, and Kueh Kochi if it is wrapped into a glutinous rice flour dough over banana leaves. It becomes a variation of ondeh ondeh which some folks call Buah Melaka if the glutinous rice dough is rolled into balls and cooked over boiling water instead of being wrapped and steamed with banana leaves as with Kueh Kochi. Finally it becomes Kueh Dadar or Kuih Ketayap if the grated coconut and gula melaka filling is wrapped with a thin pancake into a roll instead. All variations of the same theme. This reminds me of the paper dolls which my sister and cousins used to play when we were all young, with “switchable” dresses, hats and whatnots latched over a generic paper mannequin. And this is pretty much the same for Putugal, a lesser known kueh shared between the Peranakan and Eurasian/Kristang heritage in Singapore and Malaysia.
When Wendy from Table for 2 or more revealed to me her plans some months back on initiating and organising an online food festival with a monthly locality-specified theme, I was absolutely enthralled! Heritage cooking has always been something close to my heart so naturally, this series of events to come is the perfect vehicle for me to explore some of the cuisines which I’d been always been curious about and intrigued by but never ventured far enough to try. While some others choose to advance and equip themselves with the latest gadgetry and seemingly chic culinary techniques like sous vide and molecular gastronomy, I seek solitude and comfort in my batu lesung and kuih moulds, while staying grounded with traditional methods of cooking. An old guard and custodian of the old ways? That noble beast I am not. All I merely hope for, is a perpetuation of what my grandmother and mother had taught me…