Cross-cultural comfort cuisine

One of my earliest memories of tasting delicious cendol was seated, parked in dad’s car by a cendol stall near the Kota Tinggi market.  

Refreshing cendol
One of our regular stops in our non-air conditioned car en route to the waterfalls for a picnic and swim, was to enjoy icy cool cendol.  After dad placed our order in Tamil, the vendor would pass bowls of shaved, slushy ice topped with green worm-like jelly, through the open window to us.  I was too young to hold the bowl then but distinctly remember slurping this refreshing dessert on those sunny days.

In tours to Senai, Kluang and Muar, I discovered that traditional cendol vendors are now third generation members of Indian-Muslim families.  Just as in other popular Malaysian food and drinks, cendol is now served in most food courts and is also on the menu of kopitiam cafes and Asian restaurants.  Having been introduced to this family favourite at an early age, I can vouch that Indian vendors still serve the best-tasting original recipe cendol with the right balance of coconut milk, palm sugar or Gula Melaka and soft, green worm-like jelly!

Cendol served by Indian vendor from mobile stall
Cendol is as familiar to us as roti canai, nasi lemak and char kway teow because Malaysians share a common love for good local food.  The various race groups here have become so socially and culturally integrated that it is now common to see people of all races sitting in the same restaurant or food court to enjoy a meal.  In fact, if you walked into an Indian restaurant for a South Indian rice meal, don’t be surprised that the majority of customers are non-Indians.  And notice that the Chinese are enjoying the spiciest dishes and expertly eating with their hands from sheets of banana leaves!

Typical South Indian rice meal served on banana leaf plate
It’s interesting that non-Indian fans of South Indian food are so familiar with the variety of dishes and meals that they know exactly how and what to order.  Don’t be surprised that they know how to enjoy resam, spicy South Indian soup and will remind the staff to bring the air-tight drum of crispy papadam around to serve them.  And after the meal, these diners even know the Indian etiquette to fold the sheet of banana leaf inwards as a sign of gratitude.

As more restaurants are halal certified, the cuisine they serve are now introduced to a wider clientele.  For instance, the art of enjoying dim sum in a yum cha (Cantonese for “drink tea”) Chinese breakfast is now enjoyed by more non-Chinese who can gather to spend a convivial time together for dim sum brunch or lunch.  Also skilled in the art of using chopsticks, these diners can appreciate a range of handmade sweet and savoury delicacies – steamed, fried or baked – served in small portions between sips of quality Chinese tea.

A serving of Nasi Lemak at a kopitiam-style cafe
Just as the Malay and Indian communities have embraced Chinese cuisine, it’s amazing how the Chinese have acquired a higher tolerance for spicy food.  With taste-buds, probably trained by enjoying South Indian food, they can also appreciate the spicy dishes served in nasi padang spreads.  Maybe it’s because the flavours are in sharp but agreeable contrast with Chinese food.  But it’s just fascinating that many non-Malays are in favour of eating nasi lemak with a generous portion of fiery sambal for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even supper!

Halal kopitiam restaurants and cafes now offer a menu of Chinese street food that include char kway teow, a popular noodle dish.  I learnt that the fragrant flavour in this simple dish, stir-fried with a sprinkle of chopped chives, bean sprouts, cockles and a few prawns is better brought out by adding duck’s egg.  Many chefs have mastered the art of skillfully stir-frying kway teow or flat rice noodles over strong flames with wok hei or when the flames fly into the wok!

Char kway teow or stir-fired flat rice noodles
The extent of our social integration is evident from familiar food that are now staples in a typical Malaysian menu of local food.  For instance, roti canai or prata which was once served by Indian vendors, is now made and served in Malay restaurants and they often taste just as good and sometimes, even better than the original.  Chicken rice, that earned a reputation for Hainanese cooks, is now served by Malay stalls and cafes, complete with a side of chicken soup and spicy garlic-chilli dip.

Another popular snack, yu cha kway or Chinese deep-fried dough sticks that are typically eaten at breakfast dipped in black coffee or congee, now has a Malay version available at most pasar malam or night market stalls.  You will also see that tau foo fah, a Chinese beancurd dessert, is also popular with non-Chinese customers.  In recent years, the benefits of eating chok or Chinese-style rice porridge, has earned fans from non-Chinese connoisseurs and now there is also a Malay version of rice porridge to enjoy!

Those who have lived or travelled abroad, often long for the familiar taste of food from a favourite stall or restaurant back home because they say, nothing compares to its original taste.  For Johoreans who live in other states, a hometown visit will inevitably include a satisfying food binge on comfort food that they feel, are found nowhere else but here.

Spoiled by such a wide variety of food available around the clock, we often take a lot of things for granted.  After an extended stay in India, I remember heading directly from the airport to a familiar noodle stall instead of going home.  At that point, nothing could compare with that comforting taste of piping hot Teochew soup noodles in a rich, delicious broth!

We may be so familiar with food from the various ethnic groups which have long been adopted and adapted by other communities that it may even be difficult to pin-point their origin.  But you will agree that our cross-cultural cuisine is a heritage that clearly reflects the integration and unique harmony in our multi-racial community – one that is dear to our hearts and stomachs.

A version of this was published in the July 2015 issue of The Iskandarian 

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