Like the Peranakans, the Eurasians or Malaccan-Portuguese folks in Malaysia have their very own signature Kristang cuisine. Also known as the ‘Kristangs’, the descendants of the early Portuguese and Dutch settlers in straits cities like Melaka and Penang have been around since the 1500s. Most were fishermen with their settlements being close to the sea. Over the years, they have developed a unique cuisine that melds traditional generational recipes with local ingredients, alongside a slew of spices and influences throughout the many colonisation periods.
Kristang cooking is influenced by Portuguese, Dutch, and British cuisines. However, it also bears the markings of local Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisine by virtue of intermarriage with the locals. The community continues to uphold its customs and cultural heritage, which also includes a unique language called Portuguese Creole, and the elusive Kristang cuisine. But what exactly is Kristang food?
For starters, Kristang cuisine can be described as an all-Malaysian affair with a little bit of Nyonya-like dishes, Indian flavours, Chinese cooking styles, and Malay spices. It also carries a western influence in the baking department with cakes and pastries thanks to the British colonisation.
Chef Melba Nunis, a Eurasian from the Kristang community, shares the significance of her heritage cuisine that is slowly (but surely) fading away. “Kristang cuisine consists of fiery sambals, spicy curries made using dried spices, fragrant coconut, tanginess from tamarind, and fresh ingredients. But there are also non-spicy dishes from the Portuguese, Dutch, and Chinese side,” she says.
The author and restaurateur, who has been promoting Kristang cuisine all her life began cooking at a very young age. “I grew up in a typical Kristang family where only Kristang dishes were cooked daily, and this is a part of me,” she remembers.
Similar to how Malay cooking is so diverse in each state and how the flavours of northern and southern Peranakan dishes are absolute opposites, Kristang cooking varies in every household. The 66-year-old chef confides that every family would have their own recipes and ways of using ingredients – they each have their own identity.
Some of the more popular Kristang dishes include Seybah (braised meat similar to the Chinese version, but served on a bed of salad, cucumber slices, dried beancurd, and vinegar chilli sauce), Grago Pikadel (deep fried krill balls also served in Nyonya cooking), Seccu (dry beef curry) and the overly commercialised Devil Curry (sourish vinegar spicy curry).
“Devil Curry – pronounced debal – originates from Goa. It is traditionally a Eurasian curry cooked with all the different leftovers from Christmas day and boiled in a cauldron of spicy gravy. But over the years, these dishes that are promoted as ‘authentic’ have been modernised and simplified — only the name of the dish remains original,” she explains.
Another popular dish among Kristang families is Pang Susi, or meat buns. Pang means bread in Portuguese Creole and they are still made by Eurasians at home especially during Easter and weddings. Of course, you also have the sugee cake which is another must-have during festivities and celebrations.
However, Melba confides that Kristang cuisine is not difficult to cook if one has a passion for cooking. Like Malay and Peranakan cuisines, there are a few extra steps and ingredients that have to be prepared from scratch. “No short cuts,” she stresses.
“Cooking has allowed me to be creative and I improvise when necessary – you really have to. Do not be disheartened if your cake or dishes don’t turn out right the first time. It happens to the best of us. Just try again,” she advises.
She believes that Kristang cuisine can be part of an international food fare because it is a unique reflection of Malaysian cuisine. Sadly, Kristang food has always been eclipsed by the more popular Malay or Peranakan cuisines.
“I was invited to introduce Kristang cuisine in a restaurant called Fat Rice in Chicago, owned by award-winning chef Abraham Conlon who happens to be half Portuguese. I hope to have more opportunities to cook and introduce it abroad while I still can,” she continues.
The community today wants everything quick, easy and convenient. And at the same time, they demand delicious home cooking or traditional food that reminds them of their childhood. How are food purveyors keeping up with this especially when traditional recipes are not being passed down in entirety?
“Kristang cuisine is going through a slow death because the old generation is not successful in teaching and passing down their recipes to the younger generation,” she admits. Chef Melba is now starting a supper club in her home to share home-cooked meals and her personal experiences with those who are interested to learn about Kristang cuisine. “I’m trying to keep my cuisine alive through this supper club dining and cooking classes, and hopefully have a Malacca Portuguese restaurant again one day.”
And in true Kristang hospitality, Chef Mel always starts off by saying, “Kumi nang bergonya.” That means: eat, don’t be shy.
(All images courtesy of Chef Melba Nunis)