UN­LIKE ANY OTHER

Noth­ing de­fines world cui­sine bet­ter than Eurasian food, one of the old­est and most gen­uine fu­sion cuisines that evolved in Asia

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Eurasian food is one of the old­est and most gen­uine fu­sion cuisines that have evolved in Asia

The beauty of ev­ery cui­sine lies in the myr­iad tales they tell—of his­tory, the land, its peo­ple and cul­ture. For the tales that it can tell, Eurasian cui­sine can re­gale ev­ery lis­tener and eater with sto­ries of dar­ing ex­plo­ration across oceans, ad­ven­ture and ex­ploita­tion, of di­verse peo­ple com­ing to­gether, and where the two ends of the earth did in­deed meet in a fas­ci­nat­ing, melt­ing pot of ex­otic flavours from east and west.

One of the old­est cuisines in Sin­ga­pore—pos­si­bly older than the much vaunted Per­anakan food—it is a shame that Eurasian cui­sine is so lit­tle un­der­stood even now.

This unique cui­sine evolved from cen­turies ago, when the Por­tuguese first made their for­ays into Asia in search of spices at the turn of the 16th cen­tury. The first Euro­peans to reach In­dia by sea, they even­tu­ally sailed on to the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago and to Malacca, con­quer­ing and estab­lish­ing Por­tuguese set­tle­ments along the way. Within a decade-plus, Goa and Malacca be­came im­por­tant cen­tres of the Por­tuguese em­pire in this re­gion. It is against this back­drop that the first Eurasians emerged—the re­sult of the Por­tuguese Crown en­cour­ag­ing their men to marry lo­cal women. The ar­rival of other Euro­pean pow­ers in the en­su­ing years— the Span­ish, Dutch, then the Bri­tish— led to more in­ter­mar­riages be­tween the lo­cals and Euro­peans, whether en­cour­aged or frowned upon. Seven hun­dred years on, their de­scen­dants in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore are a colour­ful mix of eth­nic­i­ties that in­cludes mainly Por­tuguese, Dutch, English, In­dian and Chi­nese.

The Eurasian As­so­ci­a­tion ex­plains it suc­cinctly: “We are con­sid­ered liv­ing tes­ti­mony and de­scen­dants of the Euro­peans who came to this part of the world be­tween the 16th and 18th cen­turies. Our ori­gins are linked to var­i­ous ports in the re­gion, where Euro­peans had set­tled in, in­clud­ing Malacca, Goa, Ceylon, Ben­coolen, Ma­cao and Pe­nang.”

Their food, too, is a kalei­do­scope of flavours de­rived from this amaz­ing di­ver­sity, and re­flects their fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory so deeply and uniquely rooted to the re­gion.

Defin­ing his na­tive cui­sine, Chef Quentin Pereira, of Quentin’s Restau­rant, says: “Eurasian food is tra­di­tional fu­sion dat­ing back as far as the 1500s. It is a fu­sion of Asian dishes with heavy Euro­pean in­flu­ences or Euro­pean dishes done and cooked Asian style.”

Cather­ine Zuzarte, re­tired teacher, avid re­searcher and the au­thor of The Eurasian Her­itage Dic­tio­nary, ex­plains that the cui­sine has dis­tinct Euro­pean in­flu­ences in its oth­er­wise Asian mix of flavours and in­flu­ences. From their Euro­pean an­ces­try, there is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Sun­day roasts, a faith­ful ad­her­ence to af­ter­noon tea, and a love for rich cakes, jams and desserts. In their cook­ing, Zuzarte says the Euro­pean

in­flu­ences can be seen in the ad­di­tion of ham and ba­con bones in mak­ing gravies; roasts and stews which fea­ture promi­nently at the ta­bles; and chopped onions and pota­toes that go into many dishes. At the same time, Eurasian cook­ing is also very much Asian in flavour, fea­tur­ing pi­quant lo­cal spices, fiery bela­cans, and lemak cur­ries.

A few fun­da­men­tals un­der­pin Eurasian cui­sine, says Malaysian celebrity chef Melba Nu­nis, who heads Eurasian restau­rant Melba at the Man­sion at The Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel Malacca. The Kris­tang chef sums it up in three parts: spices and herbs are of­ten used, mainly cin­na­mon, dried chill­ies, shal­lots, mus­tard seeds, vine­gar, can­dlenuts, galan­gal and lemon­grass. Pan-fry­ing of rem­pah to be used for cur­ries is es­sen­tial, and Eurasian cui­sine has a pen­chant for spicy, tangy flavours from lime and vine­gar; sweet­ness, ev­i­dent in the prac­tice of adding sugar to cur­ries; and creamy, rich, lemak tex­tures from co­conut milk.

WELL KNOWN CLAS­SICS

There are some clas­sics that are al­ways syn­ony­mous with the cui­sine. The first to be men­tioned in­vari­ably is curry de­bal—’de­bal’ be­ing the Kris­tang word for ‘devil’. Named for its fiery, spicy flavours, it is a stew tra­di­tion­ally made on Box­ing Day, us­ing left­over meat from the Christ­mas party. Its recipe is an ex­cel­lent culi­nary ex­pres­sion of Eurasian an­ces­try. Any com­bi­na­tion of left­over roast turkey, chicken, beef and pork, and veg­eta­bles would be added to the stew, spiced with chill­ies, gin­ger, onions, turmeric and galan­gal and mus­tard, and en­riched with a large ham bone to im­part a smoky flavour. Some­times, Chi­nese roast pork would be added to­wards the end of the cook­ing.

Feng is an­other clas­sic which you will al­most never find in a restau­rant in Sin­ga­pore, but in Eurasian homes. It is made from all man­ner of pork of­fal which has been diced, and cooked in a great vat into a curry, with a rem­pah base of co­rian­der, nut­meg, saf­fron, pep­per­corns. This dish tells a story of the Eurasian’s mar­itime be­gin­nings.

Chef Pereira ex­plains: “Feng is a dish that has a lot of his­tory to it. When the Por­tuguese sailed to­wards Asia, pro­duce and the prized meat of the live­stock were re­served mainly for the cap­tain and the of­fi­cers. This dish came about from the re­source­ful­ness of the crew who col­lected the of­fal to cre­ate this hum­ble yet de­li­cious dish.” In­deed, its pop­u­lar­ity even now among the Malac­can Eurasians could be traced to the town’s past as a pri­mary base for Por­tuguese sailors way back then.

Zuzarte adds that feng is an “off-shoot” of the Goan sor­po­tel, it­self a legacy of the early Por­tuguese set­tlers, and still pop­u­lar among the Catholic In­di­ans and Goanese to this day. “But when it trav­elled to us in South­east Asia, we added more lo­cal spices, and made it a lit­tle drier.”

An­other iconic dish is smore, beef rump cooked whole in spices, then sliced be­fore serv­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Francesca Eber’s ac­count of Eurasian food in the book Sin­ga­pore Eurasians: Mem­o­ries, Hopes and Dreams, this dish dif­fers along eth­nic lines. Eurasians with more Dutch in­flu­ences would cook smore with spices like lemon­grass, turmeric, curry power, curry leaves and fenu­greek seeds. Those with more Por­tuguese in­flu­ences would cook smore with a more Chi­nese bent with the use of soy sauce, cin­na­mon, onions and cloves. The dish is then eaten with salted fish pickle or sam­bal bela­can.

And then, there is the fa­mous Eurasian sugee cake. Made of semolina, it is a no­to­ri­ously rich cake which calls for great num­bers of eggs and a sin­ful amount of but­ter. Of­ten turned into grand tiered wed­ding cakes, or en­cased in royal ic­ing as a Christ­mas gift, the glo­ri­ous sugee cake is the apogee of sweet in­dul­gence and cel­e­bra­tions.

Zuzarte says it is a main­stay at the Christ­mas ta­ble, to­gether with curry de­bal, feng, pie, roast chicken, chap chye, ham, tarts, and a rich fruit cake that had pa­tiently been fed with brandy. Such is the Eurasian cel­e­bra­tory feast.

Like in al­most all other Asian cul­tures, the Eurasian house­wife tra­di­tion­ally learnt to cook with recipes passed down orally through the gen­er­a­tions. The amount of in­gre­di­ents were never pre­cise, but based on the much-loved lo­cal prac­tice of “agak-agak”, or es­ti­mat­ing. “It is not un­com­mon for some­one to say, ‘add five-cents worth of co­conut into such-and-such a recipe’,” says Zuzarte. Ul­ti­mately, ev­ery fam­ily ends up with their own recipes and ver­sions of each dish.

De­spite its prox­im­ity, re­gional dif­fer­ences also ex­ist be­tween Sin­ga­pore and Malacca Eurasians. It of­ten takes the form of dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents used, as well as spices and sea­son­ing. “For ex­am­ple, curry de­bal in Sin­ga­pore may use meat such as lun­cheon meat or frank­furters as op­posed to pork or chicken, while sar­dines are used in curry singgang as op­posed to fresh fish. Spices in fam­ily sta­ples such as Kris­tang stew also dif­fer by re­gion. This could be a dif­fer­ence due to fam­ily recipes or a gen­eral re­gional dif­fer­ence based on pref­er­ence and avail­abil­ity,” says chef Nu­nis.

DAILY FARE

On a day-to-day ba­sis, food at home was not as elab­o­rate, but just as de­lec­ta­ble. And care was taken to make sure dishes com­ple­mented each other at ev­ery meal.

Curry am­biler is a typ­i­cal home-cooked dish, says Zuzarte. It fea­tures any com­bi­na­tion of veg­eta­bles and meat, cooked in a gravy made of ham bones and ba­con, and spiced with a rem­pah of bela­can, lemon­grass, turmeric, galan­gal, gar­lic and as­sam. “With curry am­biler, you must have cut­lets, ei­ther corned beef or pork cut­lets,” she in­sists. And with stews—a main­stay at the Eurasian ta­ble—one had to have chilli pork chop.

Stews and cur­ries are a main­stay at the home ta­ble, such as cu­cum­bers or cab­bage stuffed with minced pork cooked with pota­toes and car­rots, and thick­ened with bread­crumbs. Pies, too are a favourite—shep­herd’s pie, chicken pie, and pang susie, a bun made with a dough of sweet pota­toes and brandy, and filled with pork spiced with cin­na­mon, nut­meg and cloves. And there are sim­ple dishes unique to the cui­sine which make their pres­ence felt—teem with pig’s trot­ters, a soupy dish com­pris­ing kiam chye or salted mus­tard, pre­served plum, black beans and brandy; scad or fried chicken with sos li­mang, a sauce of dark soy and plum sauce with a squirt of lime; fried brin­jals lightly coated with ground crack­ers.

Chef Nu­nis adds to the list. “Se­mur, fish sam­bal bi­na­gre, soy li­mang fish or terung—these, too, are iconic be­cause you would never find these dishes at restau­rants that do not serve Kris­tang food. These are known by most Eurasians as dishes they grew up with.”

The typ­i­cal Eurasian menu also sees a plethora of dishes bor­rowed from other cuisines. Like the Per­anakans, they have babi pongteh and chicken buah keluak. From the Chi­nese, the birth­day noo­dles and chap chye; there’s In­dian-in­spired fish molee, their hearty ver­sion of mul­li­gatawny, and vin­daloo; and from Malay cui­sine, all sorts of cur­ries, sam­bal udang, side dishes and pick­les. And from their Euro­pean an­ces­try, roasts, baked ham, pot roast. While there is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that Eurasian and Per­anakan food are the same, it is most cer­tainly not. “The Per­anakans have more Chi­nese-in­flu­enced dishes, while the Eurasians have more Malay-in­flu­enced dishes,” says chef Nu­nis.

At her restau­rant, chef Nu­nis serves up cer­tain ‘best kept se­cret’ type dishes: black so­tong sam­bal, us­ing a recipe passed down from her grand­fa­ther and even­tu­ally to her; Mama Mercy’s crab stuff­ing, her mother’s orig­i­nal recipe; and her ex­tremely pop­u­lar sig­na­ture, keluak fried rice.

SWEETS & THINGS

Pe­cu­liar to the Eurasians is the need to have af­ter­noon tea. In the ear­lier half of the 20th cen­tury, wealthy house­holds would have im­bibed at 4 o’clock at the din­ing ta­ble laden with fine china, sil­ver cut­lery and pots of tea served by man-ser­vants. These days, it may be a hum­bler af­fair but the good­ies laid out would be sim­i­lar. While the prac­tice is Euro­pean, the food would in­clude curry puffs, kueh, sam­bal sand­wiches and fried prawn toast.

Desserts and sweet things fea­ture greatly in Eurasian cui­sine—from Malay kueh, co­conut candy and sesar­gon to moist ba­nana cakes, hot cross buns (served on Easter Sun­day) and pineap­ple tarts. Along­side sugee cake is their fa­mous fruit­cake, densely packed with fruit and slowly fed with brandy for weeks be­fore Christ­mas. It of­ten ap­pears as tiered wed­ding cakes where the top tier is care­fully stored away for the cou­ple’s first an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions—a dis­tinctly Euro­pean tra­di­tion. An­other ver­sion of the fruit cake fol­lows the Cey­lonese burgher tra­di­tion, us­ing rose­wa­ter, cashew nuts and melon pre­serve in­stead. The breud­her cake, orig­i­nated from the Dutch, is lit­tle seen now, as it re­quires the use of toddy, no longer avail­able in Sin­ga­pore.

Fi­nally, no men­tion of Eurasian cui­sine can over­look the le­gendary ‘sea­weed’, a Eurasian spe­cial­ity. Those old enough would re­mem­ber it as the firm, yet slightly wob­bly, golden hued jelly dessert cen­tre­piece at par­ties. It com­monly came in the shape of a rab­bit, and was served thinly sliced.

The way it is made is like no other dish in Sin­ga­pore. Long be­fore our sea­wa­ters be­came af­fected by the huge mar­itime traf­fic of to­day, the waters off the coast of Sin­ga­pore were quite pris­tine, and

cer­tain times of the year would see the pro­lif­er­a­tion of a par­tic­u­lar kind of sea­weed, dark green with del­i­cate fronds. Zuzarte and her hus­band re­mem­bers head­ing out to the sea off Ma­rine Pa­rade to col­lect them. “There would be plenty es­pe­cially after a storm or rough seas,” they re­called. With enough in hand, the te­dious process be­gan. First, the sea­weed would be washed thor­oughly, then laid out to dry un­til it be­came white and crisp. This of­ten took a few days. Then the sea­weed would be boiled down into a gelati­nous mix­ture—a process that re­quired con­tin­u­ous stir­ring to pre­vent lumps. Then it would be strained, sugar and brandy added, then poured into moulds. The jelly set when it cooled, and did not re­quire re­frig­er­a­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Eber, good sea­weed “should be pli­able in tex­ture and slightly crunchy to the taste”. They could be pre­served by dry­ing in the sun un­til a coat­ing of sugar crys­tallised on the sur­face.

Hav­ing been around for such a long time, it is a shame that few peo­ple out­side the com­mu­nity know much about Eurasian cui­sine be­yond curry de­bal and sugee cake. There are also painfully few Eurasian restau­rants around where peo­ple can ex­pe­ri­ence the cui­sine. As many had em­i­grated from Sin­ga­pore decades ago, the com­mu­nity is now very small, num­ber­ing just over 15,000, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 cen­sus. “There are so few Eurasians left in Sin­ga­pore, and a lot of Sin­ga­pore­ans still do not know about Eurasians. For in­stance, the ma­jor­ity of Sin­ga­pore­ans didn’t know that Joseph School­ing was a born and bred Sin­ga­porean, let alone Eurasian,” re­marked chef Quentin.

It is a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in Malaysia where Eurasians are a mi­nor­ity as well. What’s more, chef Nu­nis says, “Eurasians have also been cook­ing mainly at home and for fes­ti­vals and events—there have not been many restau­rants or food es­tab­lish­ments that have pro­moted the cui­sine out­side the com­mu­nity. Teach­ing the next gen­er­a­tion to cook must be done— young peo­ple must take an in­ter­est in the cui­sine, and even­tu­ally work to­wards pre­serv­ing it in their own way.”

For­tu­itously, a push among young Eurasians lately has re­vived an in­ter­est in this cul­ture. And if Sin­ga­pore had not em­braced it be­fore, it is high time to do so now, and cel­e­brate its place in our lo­cal cul­ture and her­itage.

Top Chef Melba Nu­nis’ serai chicken

From top Smore, an­other iconic Eurasian dish; Sugee cake, a clas­sic dessert at Quentin’s

Op­po­site page Fat Fuku’s unique pair­ing of two great Eurasian loves in this dish—curry de­bal pie

From top Chef Melba Nu­nis’ keluak fried rice; Hot cross buns

Op­po­site page Shep­herd’s pie

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