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by Dave DeWitt
Indonesian Chile Paste
Curried Coconut Beef
White Chicken Curry
Singapore Fish Head
The original Spice Islands were the Moluccas, those remote isles of cloves and nutmeg that lie 1,500 miles east of Djakarta, Indonesia. But throughout history, the location of the Spice Islands gradually broadened to include all of the East Indies--now the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. There was a simple reason for the broader definition: the spice-growing locations expanded as the region was conquered-or plundered--by one spice-seeking world power after another: The Arabs, Romans, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the Americans.
Today, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are separate, independent countries, and these "spice islands" still live up to their name. Indonesia produces about seventy percent of the world's nutmeg and mace, plus large amounts of cassia, turmeric, black pepper, and cloves. Most of the cloves, incidentally, are not eaten but rather are smoked in cigarettes. Other curry ingredients grown in the region include chiles, ginger, galangal, fruits, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and coconuts--perhaps the most important single ingredient in Spice Islands curries. These culinary components, combined with the many ethnic influences on the region, have produced a fascinating and complex gastronomic stew.
A Melding of Cultures and Cuisines
In addition to the original Malays and all the other peoples who have inhabited the Spice Islands, one other group also emigrated there--the Chinese. Although the region was visited by traders from China for centuries, the first main Chinese influx came in 1820s, as immigrants worked as construction workers on the building of Singapore, and the second wave of laborers came in the 1840s to work the tin mines.
The influence of the Chinese, who now comprise about three-quarters of the population of Singapore, has been vast. The major Chinese immigrants were Hokkiens (from Fujian province), Teochews, Cantonese, and Hainanese. All brought their own regional cultures and food traditions to the region and settled in their own enclaves in Singapore and Malaysia. Most of earliest Chinese settlers were men, and because of the lack of Chinese women, they married Malay women. Thus a distinct subculture was born, known in Malay as peranakan (meaning "to be born here"), and in English as "Straits Chinese." The women of that subculture were known as nonyas, Malay for "ladies."
The intermarriage of Chinese men and Malay women ended once the population of Singapore grew large enough to include Chinese women, and Nonyas eventually became part of the mainstream of Singapore culture. Their influence lives on in Nonya cooking, a blend of Chinese subtlety and techniques and spicy Malay ingredients. It has been said that in one meal, the diner receives a perfect balance of opposing flavors, textures, and colors.
The British, of course, also had an influence on the culture of the region. After Sir Stamford Raffles colonized Singapore for the British, the small fishing village became the leading port east of the Suez Canal. The British influence accounts for the fact that the principal language of Singapore is English (other official languages are Tamil, Malay, and Cantonese), but the British had a much lesser impact on the food. Nowadays, about the only surviving British culinary heritage involves drinking; the hotels and restaurants serve high tea in the afternoon, excellent Singapore-brewed beers and stouts, and plenty of gin drinks.
The expansion of Singapore as a major trading center led to settlement by other ethnic groups. The main Indian immigration came during the nineteenth century, when indentured Indian laborers came to work on the rubber plantations, and now the population of Singapore is about six and a half percent Indian. Under British control, the settlers were kept in their own ethnic enclaves, so they could not easily unite and rebel. These enclaves--such as Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India--though unofficial now, still exist to this day, and each area has its own markets, spice shops, and restaurants.
Beyond a doubt, the two principal foods of the region are rice and seafood. Rice was introduced by Indian traders about A.D. 1000, and dozens of varieties are grown and consumed in the region. Because of the proximity to the sea, the Spice Islands have a great variety and abundance of seafood. Three very popular items are red snapper, prawns, and clams.
The most popular cooking style of the Spice Islands is currying. "Curries, easily the most common dish eaten with rice, are a definite mark of the Indian influence in Malay cooking," notes Singapore restaurateur Fawziah Amin. "For almost every meal, a dish of fish, prawn, or chicken curry has to be on the menu. While Indian curry is hot, rich, and fiery, with yogurt added, the Malays opt for a milder, delicate taste, with the creamy flavor of coconut milk in generous portions."
In Malaysia, the curry concept is taken a step further with an impressive array of curry-like sauces. For example, lemak kuning is a coconut-based sauce made with most of the regional curry ingredients; kerabu kerisik is made with fried, pounded coconut, lime juice, dried shrimp, shallots, and chiles; and kacang blends together the flavors of peanuts, lemongrass, galangal, chiles, and coconut milk.
Similarly, the famous sambals range from simple chile sauces to curry-like pastes and are primarily used to spice up other dishes, such as mild curries. The basis for most sambals is chiles, onions (or shallots or garlic), and citrus, but many other ingredients are used including lemongrass, blacan, ginger, galangal, candlenuts, kaffir lime leaves, and coconut milk. Thus the sambals resemble a curry paste, but with a much greater amount of chiles. When made in the west, cashews (botanical at left) are often substituted for the hard-to-find candlenuts and now have become a curry staple.
Indonesian cookery is similar to Malaysian because they share many common ingredients: coconut, chiles, ginger, galingal, and tamarind, in particular. The Indonesian version of prawn paste is called trasi and is commonly used, as are a bewildering number of Indonesian sambals.
A wonderful description of the effects of Indonesian curries appeared in a nineteenth century travel book, The Boy Travelers in the Far East, by Thomas Knox: "This is the famous Java curry; and if you have taken plenty of the pepper and chutney, and other hot things, your mouth will burn for half an hour as though you had drunk from a kettle of boiling water. And when you have eaten freely of curry, you don't want any other breakfast. Everybody eats curry here daily, because it is said to be good for the health by keeping the liver active, and preventing fevers."