So what is curry? It appears that the Portuguese and British who were in
The tendency to label all spicy stews as curries has carried on in the rest of
Unlike Indian curries, Thai, Malay and Indonesian curries are generally based on a cacophony of local fresh herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, coriander leaf, fresh tumeric, lime leaves and coconut. Favoured Indian curry spices of cinnamon, cumin or coriander seeds are seldom used, and if they are, their foreign origin is amply ascribed. The Thai Mussaman Curry is one such example.
More likely, many of these dishes are indigenous to their area and possess local names. Thai Red Curry is “geng dtaeng”, while in
To start, there are few a local food historian to work on. Food writer, Sri Owen who writes a lot about Indonesian food commented, “For whatever reason, almost all Indonesian recipes, even in the highly literate societies like that those centred on the kraton of the Central Javanese sultans, have been handed down by example and word of mouth, and we have no way of knowing how they have changed or developed in the process.” This is the state that we find ourselves in when delving into the food history of this region.
But not all is lost. Historical records from Chinese and European visitors to the region do shed some light. What we know from historical records of food eaten in about the 15th century in
The popularity of chilli grew and it was soon entrenched in the diet of many. More than a hundred years later, Sir Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain James Cook on his round the world voyage, found cayenne pepper, which will probably be chilli pepper in almost all the foodstuff in
In N B Dennys' 1894 "A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya”, he wrote of the Curry from the Straits Settlement as characterised by its use of coconut milk, tumeric and the pods of the moringa tree (drumsticks). He went on to say there were two main types of curry, primarily “black” and “white”, and the generic name of curry in Malay was gulai.
Tucking into curry as part of a huge meal with a variety of other meats and fish usually cooked in European ways was not uncommon among the Europeans in Island Southeast Asia. It is often found on the tables in Dutch East Indies as much as the Straits Settlements and
Prawn Salad with Mayonnaise
Mutton Curry and Rice
Cold Roast Pork and Corned Beef
Red Cabbage Salad with Apples
Sago Pudding Gula Malacca
Some curries they had may be of Indian style, but the discerning suitably recognised the indigenous dishes when they saw it, terming it a Malay curry and such. In P C B Newington’s collection of recipes published in 1947, his curry section is well compiled with a collection of Indian curries, Malay curries which are based on local herbs using ingredients such as lemon grass and belachan, and even European curries! Quite similar to Britain where , a new strand of curry emerged as it was adapted to European cooking, with the addition of Worcester Sauce, tomato sauce or even as an adaptation to Malayan taste, Soya Bean Sauce. Mother’s Curry is a good example,
Fry a large chopped onion in 2 tablespoons butter. Add 2 tablespoons Curry Powder. Fry several minutes and if dry add stock. Now add 1 tablespoon each of Worcester sauce, tomato sauce and vinegar. Salt to taste. Now add cubes of cooked cold meat and enough stock to cover. Simmer 2 hours or more, stirring.
Before World War Two, very few European women cook in
Among the Chinese, the Hainanese continued to be known for their curry. My grandmother whom I interviewed, recalled fondly of buying curry from the Hainanese hawker in the 1930s and 1940s in the Clarke Quay area. Although she was born in Malaya in the 1920s, her parents were new émigrés from
Cooking a 1940s Curry
I decided to try a chicken curry recipe from P C B Newington's Good Food one weekend. Trying to keep true to the kitchen implements in the 1940, I valiantly decided to pound the rempah and spices instead of giving them a buzz in the food processor. I wondered of the pots and stove he would have used, for that can change the flavour of the dish. In the end, I cooked it in a wok on my gas stove and the result was a flavourful dark curry. Cooking with old recipes are not for the novice. Unlike the precise instructions and enticing photos in today's cookbook, cookbook of yester-years are simple affairs with vague instructions at time. But it was fun! If you will like to give this a go, the recipe is transcribed in its entirety in the following.
1chicken-jointed, 2 pieces ginger, 6 small onions, 3 green chillies, 1 coconut (no. 1 and 2 santan), Coconut oil, 1/2 dessertspoon jintan puteh, Vinegar, 1 piece cinnamon, salt, 8 red chillies (dried), Garlic, 1 dessertspoon ketumba, 2 stalks serai, limes
Slice onions, garlic, ginger and green chillies. Pound other ingredients. Slightly heat a pan and pour in coconut oil, when smoking hot put in onions, garlic, ginger and chillies and mix well, then add ground curry stuffs. After all has been well mixed, put in chicken with vinegar (or ketchup) about 1 tablespoon and salt. Cook for a shortwhile then add No. 2 santan and cook till tender. Then stir in No. 1 santan and heat thoroughly but do not boil. Add juice of 1/2 lime.
(My notes : jintan puteh = white cumin seeds, ketumba = coriander seeds, santan no.1 = the first squeeze of coconut milk, santan no 2 = the second squeeze of coconut milk.)
With the exception for the Straits Chinese or the Peranakans who lived in the Malay archipelago for generations and are accustomed to spicy food and cooking with spices, herbs and coconut milk., I can only imagine how curry will seem alien to the new Chinese emigrants in colonial
Lois T Kao who taught cookery in
The legacy remains. Many Singapore Chinese love spicy food and curries but are more familiar cooking with curry powder or curry paste for a dish then to assemble the spices and cooking the curry from scratch. In contrast, the Malay, Indians and Eurasians are more comfortable using spices. Today, there are a wide array of curries to be enjoyed in