Thursday, July 11, 2013


For starters, take a quick look at a map of southeast Asia, present-day Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia. Use Singapore as the center reference. North of Singapore, along the western coast of the land mass, just to the left (west) of Kuala Lumpur, you will find the island of Penang and below it the Straits of Malacca, once a pivot point and major focus  for trade, exploration and exploitation. Any country interested in this area has instantly recognized that the Straits were a strategically-priceless choke point, giving or denying access to the South China Sea and points east.
In the 15th C, the Ming Emperor of China sent one of his daughters to wed the Sultan of Malacca. The Princess brought 500 retainers with her, all of which were commanded to wed local Malays. The culture of the so-called Straits Chinese is an amalgam of Malay, Indonesian, and Chinese that began with the Princess and continued for centuries.
The cultural melding best shows in their vibrant cuisine, called Nonya, which is the affectionate word for woman, or mother, or even auntie, in Malay (baba is father). You'll hear more than a few references to this style of cuisine in the months to come, so I thought I'd give a little historic background. Why? Because history always affects food: how it's grown, prepared, and eaten.
I know this first hand (and so do you, just cast your memory back to those old days before the creation of the international theme restaurant consortiums). When I was a kid, Italian immigrants to New York made the best pizza in the world; Sbarro's high-sodium fake Italian would've gone bankrupt overnight. When you were a kid, any variation on your local food theme usually came from immigrants, whether they were displaced people of color bringing fried chicken to the north, the Portugese bringing linguica to Rhode Island, or Polish immigrants bringing pierogis to Pennsylvania. And for the ultimate American example, check out Brooklyn, New York, where the melting pot even now is bubbling merrily away.
But, as always, I digress, so...back to Asia. Nowhere is historic influences on food more true - and more visible - than in the area in and around Melacca, and north to Penang. Here, you can easily trace through ingredients the tides of various cultures and how they added their touch to a cuisine. Read on for more history, and a new way of preparing rice...
After the Sultan was deposed by the Portugese (1615 more or less), the new rulers found they were able to rule almost nothing. The law of unintended consequences roared in; these guys were good at conquering but as administrators they were beyond incompetent. Trade vanished, the money went to safer places, the area became infested with pirates. Eventually, Portugal skulked off back home, and things started to go back to normal. Then those Johnnies-come-lately, the British, arrived and triumphed (mid 1800's, through endless skirmishes, wars and maneuverings, through the Empire triumphant in the time of Victoria, and until World War II, but that's a whole nother story and hasn't a whole lot to do with food so who cares?).
The energetic population of China, consummate merchants, had hop-skipped between the countless islands (Indonesia alone has almost ten thousand!), looking primarily for trade. Merchants set up vast networks, one of the first and longest-lasting on Penang. They, like the Princess's retainers, married local women, then expected them to cook their beloved Chinese dishes.
But the lively ladies of Malaysia thought Chinese food was bland and uninteresting and, over time, they slipped in the chilis, the mustardy galangal, the lemongrass, the shallots and other spices so beloved of the local palates. They added coconut milk, of course. Try making your next batch of rice using coconut milk; be prepared for a gustatory epiphany.
1C long grain rice, washed in running water for two minutes
1C each water and coconut milk (can use flavored broth in place of water)
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
In a heavy saucepan, bring rice/water/milk/salt to a boil. Stir, cover tightly, lower heat to minimum. Use a diffuser if the heat's too high (watch heat carefully, as coconut milk scorches easily). Cook 15 minutes. Turn off, let sit 10 minutes. Fluff and serve. Try not to fall out of your chair with ecstasy.
Speaking of ecstasy...there's a chili sauce nicknamed ecstasy, but officially called Rooster Sauce (there's a rooster on the front of the squeeze bottle) that you should rush out and get from your local Asian store. This is the quintessential hot sauce for Asian food. It'll perk up a vinaigrette or scrambled eggs, too. I wonder how a dab would do in potato salad? Def in chicken soup!
And now back to the main theme of this post.
Nonya cuisine, a melding of Chinese and Malaysian, is now the dominant style in a wide area stretching from north of Malacca south to Singapore and east on through Indonesia and the other (island) half of Malaysia. While Penang shows the influence of nearby Thailand's cuisine (more acidic tamarind, for example), Singapore's night hawker stalls are considered, at least by Singaporeans, as the more authentic, purer Nyonya flavor. I'll try them all, by golly, and let you know. Anything to keep you up to date as I can find a reliable computer.

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