Melaka Chitty Food - A Hot Melange of Flavours
Evolved over centuries, this delicious cuisine is South Indian food married with Chinese and Malay ingredients.
By Shobha Tsering Bhalla
If you thought Indian food was mind-bogglingly diverse, think again. There’s another exotic addition to this teeming culinary heritage, albeit from outside India, originating in Malacca where Tamil traders from Panai in Tamil Nadu settled 400 years ago. They inter-married with the local Malays and sometimes the Peranakan Chinese, another locally evolved community who had settled in the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century. The Melaka Chitties as they are known, evolved around the same time as the more well-known Peranakan Chinese and speak a Malay patois which is mixed with many Tamil loan words.
Their cuisine is a fusion of South Indian, Malay and Chinese cooking and their most famous exponent is Veni Rengayah-Knight, who recently published the first cookbook called Food of my Ancestors and whose recipes are featured in this magazine. It is estimated that there are only 100 Melaka Chitty families in Singapore while their total population in the region stands at 2000. Though there are some similarities with Chinese Peranakan, the Chitty Melaka cuisine abjures pork and beef as the community is staunchly Hindu.
The difference between South Indian food and Melaka Chitty food is “subtle yet significant,” says Knight, a true-blue Melaka Chitty who learnt how to cook the traditional way from her grandmother (Nenek, a Malay word) and mother. “It is not so much the menu but the ingredients and the methods used,” she told me recently during the Singapore Food Festival where she cooked her celebrated crab curry.
“Not all dishes are ‘tempered’ the Indian way. Certain dishes were used for specific occasions. Some are still very traditionally Indian,” she says. This is because they are very staunch Hindus. Traditional food is still cooked for certain Hindu festivals like Pongal. The best time to taste Straits Indian food would be at a padiyal (yearly prayers for ancestors) when all the favourite foods of the ancestors are cooked.
(Nasi Kembuli-Chitty style)
• Basmati rice: 3 cups
(soaked for 20 minutes and left to drain)
• Medium sized onion: 1 (finely sliced)
• Light raisins: ½ cup
• Toasted cashew nuts: ½ cup (for garnishing)
• Fried shallots: ½ cup (for garnishing)
• Cinnamon: 2 sticks
• Cloves: 6
• Cooking oil: 2 tbsp
• Ghee: 2 tbsp
• Vegetable or chicken stock: 5 cups
(cooked with 2 tbsp of coriander and 2 tsp
of cumin, strained and set aside)
• Saffron: 1 tsp
• Rose essence: 1 tsp
• Desired food coloring (optional)
Note: Approx 1 ½ cup of liquid for every
cup of rice and 2 for the first cup
Heat oil and ghee and saute spices and onions.
Add the rice and stir fry for 5 minutes.
Place the rice in a rice cooker.
Add prepared stock and all the other ingredients and cook.
When done, make holes with a chopstick around the rice and drop food coloring into the holes and then fluff up the rice.
Garnish with toasted cashew nuts and fried shallots.
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