A KRISTANG MEAL IN MALACCA
Exploring the kitchens of Malacca that offers distinct yet familiar flavors
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
FROM LEFT: PORTUGUESE BAKED RED SNAPPER, A FAMILY RECIPE OF THE STA. MARIAS PRICED AT RM35 OR P389; EGGPLANT SERVED