Chapter 5, Part 2
Known as the “Middle Kingdom” in Mandarin, China has always projected its image as the center of the world even long before the modern People’s Republic of China was formed. Prior to the creation of the Communist state as well as the Republic of China – present-day Taiwan – Greater China was ruled by successive dynasties dating back to the second millennium BC with constantly moving boundaries as powers rose and fell. Being one of the oldest civilizations in Asia, Chinese cultural influence is palpable beyond its borders, across East and Southeast Asia, and parts of South Asia. The hardworking Chinese are known for their entrepreneurial spirit which helps them not only to survive in foreign lands, but also to thrive economically.
Traveling across Southeast Asia today – a melange of different peoples from a multitude of cultural backgrounds – one might not instantly recognize traces of Chinese influence in this part of the world. However, to understand the long process of acculturation between Chinese and local cultural elements one only needs to look at the wide array of dishes in the region, from a bowl of laksa in Singapore to curry mee in Penang (Malaysia), tahu telur in Central Java (Indonesia), and the humble Shan noodles in Myanmar.
More than a thousand years ago, the taste buds of the people in Java were familiar to several native ingredients only. However, over the course of centuries as Chinese merchants began arriving in the archipelago lured by the lucrative spice trade, new plants from the north also found their way to Southeast Asia. Garlic and soybean were among the ingredients successfully introduced to the people of Java which would gradually become an integral part of Javanese cuisine.
As soybean gained popularity among the locals, it became widely cultivated, ensuring its abundance on the island. In the 18th century, a new technique was invented to create a concoction of soy sauce so rich and sweet it has now become an essential part of Javanese cooking. Kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce, is made by adding palm sugar – also introduced by the Chinese – and other ingredients, creating a condiment which is more viscous than other types of soy sauce. Prior to the creation of kecap manis, keluak (Pangium edule) was exclusively used to give certain dishes an intriguingly black tinge.
Not only kecap manis, the availability of soybeans in large quantity in Java had inspired the locals to create a new technique to enjoy the beans. Tempe (also known as tempeh outside Indonesia) is made by fermenting soybeans using a type of fungus (Rhizopus oligosporus) which thrives in Java’s hot and humid climate. As opposed to tofu’s smoothness, tempe provides a variation of texture since the mycelia-covered soybeans remain intact.
Apart from garlic, soybean and palm sugar, the Chinese also introduced noodles and the wok – a versatile round-bottomed cooking vessel used to stir fry, deep fry and braise, among other techniques. The wok became so popular it is now easily found in kitchens across Southeast Asia, from fancy restaurants to home kitchens. Numerous dishes have been created by adding local ingredients and spices to otherwise Chinese traditional recipes, a key aspect of Peranakan culture in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. When James and I were in Penang, we joined a cooking class by Pearly Kee – a fifth-generation Nyonya (woman of an ethnically mixed community) who’s married to an ethnic Indian Malaysian – who introduced us to some of the island’s Peranakan dishes. Making hong bak was a revelation for me as its taste, textures and color reminded me of a similar dish in Java called semur. Brought by Hokkien people who came to Southeast Asia mainly from what is now China’s Fujian Province, both dishes have sweet soy sauce and nutmeg as key ingredients, a testament to the cultural assimilation of Chinese immigrants in the region.
However, Chinese influence didn’t stop in Southeast Asia. Until the 13th century, Chinese merchants still dominated spice trade in the archipelago that is now Indonesia. From the epicenter of the Spice Islands, they made stops in Sulawesi, Borneo, and Java, before sailing through the Strait of Malacca and eventually reaching the spice market on the Malabar coast (in present-day Kerala). The Chinese fishing net and wok are among the items introduced from China to the southern part of the subcontinent. Known as cheena chatti, “Chinese pan”, it has become an important cookware in this part of India.
The Indians, on the other hand, also introduced a fair share of new spices to the east, including pepper. Zheng He’s treasure voyages helped boost the trade of this particular spice in Sumatra, nurturing closer ties between India and the archipelago. The Indians, however, were no strangers to the Sumatrans, Javanese, and other people in Southeast Asia as they were the ones who introduced Hinduism and Buddhism to the region in the first millennium AD. With new ingredients coming from both China and India, Southeast Asian cuisines would evolve into something people today are more familiar with.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.