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