Language is the essence of culture. This saying has been around us from time immemorial. Ever since the birth of civilisation, we have been using speech as one of the best agents that share and promote the understanding of cultures.
However, cultural identity might have been realised in physical forms from a long time ago, such as through the food people eat. This is indisputably true in our times when travel has made people identify cultures, regions, and ethnicities based on the cuisines that cross the seas and the oceans. Food has been very much part and parcel of our travel itineraries and most of us get influenced by palate varieties when travelling the globe. We influence and get influenced in a tantalising culinary world, enabling us to establish strong connections by flaunting curious pots of similarities.
When a Malayali (someone who speaks Malayalam) trader from the southern Indian state of Kerala took his paratha (spelt Prata in Southeast Asia) making skills to a new form and introduced something called mutabbak in a Middle Eastern country, he must have hardly imagined his invention’s successful journey to Southeast Asia. It is martabak as we know it today in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
Though you will not get to taste or even hear the term martabak in India, the crispy, stuffed pancake with egg and vegetables steals the limelight in the Indonesian street food scene. Martabak is said to have been introduced to the Malay peninsula by Indian Muslim traders. The other variety, martabak manis (sweet martabak) is something that was born out of the original martabak, martabak telor.
When we talk about martabak, we cannot eschew its parent dish – paratha. Called roti canai in Indonesia, the dish comes in the same taste as you can get in India. The variety served in Southeast Asia might be slightly smaller than the one in Kerala. The intricate layers might also be missing, but the flavour and the taste are just as irresistible. So is the chicken curry with which roti canai is served. Roti canai and kari ayam (chicken curry) are usually seen on the menus of restaurants serving Peranakan cuisine. Just like martabak, the dish comes in various flavours, including thin, fluffy, pancake-styled ones stuffed with strawberry, chocolate, srikaya or other locally popular sweet items.
It is difficult to get insights into the nomenclature of food that are results of influence. The similarities and differences in taste and the differences in names could be very interesting subjects for research, but concrete answers are rarely possible to find. The invention of mutabbak out of paratha and paratha’s appearance as roti canai are only a handful of examples among scores or even hundreds of other dishes that present similarities and differences when introduced from country to country.
A curious case is the curry puff. The curry puff used to be sold by many households in Singapore and Malaysia and is still a hot favourite among snacks in these countries and parts of Indonesia. The origins of the spicy snack are a bit complicated. There is an Indo-Chinese combination that harmoniously stirs the ingredients and the texture of this gastronomic delight. It has a bit of the British Cornish pasty and the Portuguese empanada but is very much a cousin of the Indian samosa in its filling of curry-flavoured potato and chicken. When fried with a blistered outer layer, the Chinese have a partial claim to its ownership too. The snack chain, Old Chang Kee, has made it popular in different parts of the world.
When the Indian traders reached the shores of Indonesia sometime between the 1st and the 5th century AD, their first port of embarkation was Sumatra. Thus, Sumatra became the gateway for Indian cuisines to make their further journey into the archipelago. One dish that many would like to talk about while mentioning Sumatra, is Rendang. The Indian curry is thought to be the precursor of rendang as a combination of meat and spices prepared in India had a close affinity to the taste of rendang. This affinity can safely be extended to the popular Nasi Padang, the soul of the Minangkabau culinary tradition. With its choice of curries and spice-filled eggs and seafood, a typical Nasi Padang feast can be compared to a non-vegetarian Thali meal in India.
The food connection talk gets even more curious as we begin to munch lesser-known items. Two snacks that caught me by surprise after I stumbled upon them in Indonesia are kembang goyang and ampyang. Both exist in the archipelago in the same form and taste as they can be seen in South India. Achappam, which is a Dutch-influenced delicacy prepared by Syrian Christians in Kerala, travelled to different parts of Southeast Asia as part of trade relations. Though it is not very easy to find this in urban areas in Indonesia, it continues to be sold in villages. That holds good for ampyang, a peanut and palm sugar mixture, known as kappalandi mithayi in Kerala. Ampyang produced in Yogyakarta adds ginger to spice up the taste and stays true to rustic palates as it does in South India.
The list goes on with more lesser-known, but tasty and worthy snacks and drinks that have stood the test of time – putu, teh tarik,and so on…