A KRISTANG MEAL IN MALACCA

Ex­plor­ing the kitchens of Malacca that of­fers dis­tinct yet fa­mil­iar fla­vors

Cebu Living - - Food - By JUDE BA­CALSO

Cre­ole groups, which are com­mu­ni­ties of mixed- race de­scen­dants of Euro­pean col­o­niz­ers, have a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­ture that ap­pro­pri­ates the best of both branches of their her­itage and, for some­one like me with a back­ground in ge­net­ics, a phys­i­cal­ity ( phe­no­type, in our par­lance) that is deemed un­der sci­en­tific pa­ram­e­ters to be quite su­pe­rior.

So when the in­vi­ta­tion from Sin­ga­porean writer Kurt Gana­p­a­thy came to slip away from the six- day itin­er­ary of the Malaysian Tourism Hunt for a visit to the Por­tuguese set­tle­ment in Ujong Pasir, just five kilo­me­ters from our cen­trally lo­cated ho­tel, I hap­pily took off.

The Kris­tangs or Malacca Por­tuguese have lived here since 1933, but they have ex­isted since in­ter­mar­riages among the lo­cals and the Por­tuguese set­tlers be­gan around the time Mag­el­lan ar­rived in Cebu at the turn of the 16th cen­tury. Their skin is a tight, even sheen of brown, beau­ti­ful in the glow of the Malacca Straits sun­set. Their eyes are fe­line, al­mond-shaped and yet tip-tilted, es­pe­cially on the younger gen­er­a­tions who carry within them traces of Dutch and In­dian her­itages. Rus­sell, a boy who couldn’t have been older than 16, crouches on the ground sift­ing through to­day’s fresh catch. “We can’t sell the big fish in the stalls,” re­veals Christopher de Mello, his un­cle who brings in the fish ev­ery day. “No one or­ders a fish that’s too big be­cause it would be a prob­lem fin­ish­ing it off. We give them a par­tic­u­lar size, one that can be eaten in a sit­ting.” Fas­ci­nat­ing insight from a Kristang fish­er­man, whose sis­ter-in-law Clau­d­ina is now in the kitchen, preparing her grand­mother’s baked fish, a prized fam­ily recipe that she serves in the 30-year-old seafood stall she now runs with her sis­ter De­fene Pinto.

The taxi driver who took us to the place for the es­ti­mated me­tered amount of P200, rat­tles off his fa­vorite stalls. “Eight is good, and three. Also 10, very good.” Good for us, be­cause Clau­d­ina’s J& J Cor­ner ( named af­ter her mother Joan Sta. Maria and a late sis­ter), was stall no. 10, at the very end of the sea­side com­plex, clos­est to the play­ground.

Clau­d­ina emerges with a plate, the tin foil folded neatly to re­veal a red snap­per baked to her grand­mother’s care­ful spec­i­fi­ca­tions. “Most dishes are sea­soned based on taste, but this one is done to ex­act mea­sure­ments to get it per­fect all the time.” Heed­ing the wis­dom of her el­ders pays off nicely: the snap­per is cooked exquisitely, ten­der with a nice sweet­ness that can only be had from fish that was alive just a few min­utes ago. The red curry is fla­grantly spicy, per­fectly spooned over rice, and driz­zled with a lit­tle lime to bal­ance the heat.

The per­fect side dish is one that most Filipinos are fa­mil­iar with, but never have I had it this way. The brin­jal, or

ta­long, is halved and scored on the in­side in a pat­tern that re­minded me of Chanel quilt­ing, sea­soned with salt and black pep­per, and pan- fried un­til caramelized. It is sweet, sa­vory, with a per­fect crisp­ness on the sur­face and a soft­ness in­side that I en­joyed it with­out need­ing the vine­gar and soy sauce most Filipinos usu­ally have it with.

Clau­d­ina’s cala­mari is a fa­mil­iar one, served just like we do in Cebu: with a coat­ing of flour and a spongy squid in­side. But it’s the dip­ping sauce I would fly back for. “We don’t want any­thing from the bot­tle, so we made one from scratch,” she says of the con­coc­tion that re­veals the Chi­nese’ pen­chant for sweet and sour.

And as if in time for the hol­i­day sea­son— af­ter all, Kristang is de­rived from the word “Chris­tians”— the Curry Debel ( or in a fit­ting play of words, Devil’s Curry) is rolled out. “It’s a tra­di­tion pe­cu­liar to mixed peo­ple of Euro­pean her­itage, like also those in Sin­ga­pore,” re­veals Gana­p­a­thy. “Af­ter Christ­mas, we don’t know what to do with the left­over meats so they are thrown into a pot and cooked into a curry.” Each fam­ily is known for their par­tic­u­lar level of spici­ness, some more cruel than oth­ers. Thank­fully, the Sta. Marias are a kind bunch, and my heat- shy palate en­joyed a scaled- down version of the fa­mous dish, even if it is the only touristy con­ces­sion I will ad­mit to.

Ah, the devil on a plate, served by Chris­tians in a Mus­lim na­tion. The world is right again, but only af­ter the third spice- laced burp.

Many thanks to Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Air­ways Ber­had, Pro­ton, and Swiss- Gar­den Ho­tel & Res­i­dences Malacca. Should you find your­self in this part of Malaysia, visit J& J Cor­ner Por­tuguese.

DEBEL CURRY, OR DEVIL’S CURRY, AS IT IS MORE

POP­U­LARLY KNOWN

FROM LEFT: POR­TUGUESE BAKED RED SNAP­PER, A FAM­ILY RECIPE OF THE STA. MARIAS PRICED AT RM35 OR P389; EGG­PLANT SERVED

POR­TUGUESE-STYLE

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