Chapter 5, Part 3
At a heritage house in Kumarakom on the bank of Vembanad Lake, a part of Kerala’s iconic backwaters, I discovered one of the biggest surprises during the Spice Odyssey. On the day James and I arrived, we were served several dishes for lunch, including two or three types of curries and two fried fish encrusted with appetizing gold layer, a telltale sign of the amount of spices used to season them. As I savored the fish, familiar flavors burst in my mouth, reminiscent of my mother’s own version of fried freshwater fish. More than 4,000 km from where she lives, her cooking somehow followed me all the way to this corner of southern India.
This coincidence, however, shouldn’t have come as a surprise as relations had long been established between the peoples of southern India and their counterparts in Southeast Asia, including those in the sprawling archipelago that forms most of modern-day Indonesia. The Indians introduced cumin, coriander and pepper to Sumatra, Java and beyond, thanks not only to the thriving trade activities in the region, but also to the fact that centuries ago much of the archipelago adhered to Hinduism – a religion brought by ancient traders from India which then became the dominant faith in Southeast Asia for centuries.
More than a thousand of years of Indian presence in the archipelago allowed for cultural exchanges to flourish. Along with commodities and religious texts, the Indians also took their dishes with them, which were eventually introduced to the locals. Intrigued by the exotic flavors, the locals then applied some cooking techniques commonly practiced across the islands at that time to make variations of the foreign cuisines. The Indians, on the other hand, brought the recipes of these new creations back home, which have been adopted there ever since.
Idli, a traditional savory cake usually consumed for breakfast in southern India, is an example of a dish born from such cultural exchange. Originally made from black gram, buttermilk, curd and spices, the modern version of idli is also made from rice which are then all mixed together, fermented and steamed. The last two food preparation methods are believed to have been introduced to the Indians by the people of a region that is now Indonesia.
Many new things made their way to Maritime Southeast Asia from west of the archipelago, so much so the word for west in Indonesian and Malay is barat, derived from Bharata then Bharat – the Sanskrit name for the Indian subcontinent itself. Yet, not all dishes that originated in India became popular in Southeast Asia. Dal (split lentils consumed all over the subcontinent) and papadum (thin crisps usually made from black grams, lentils or chickpeas) are among those that remain widely consumed in South Asia but are hardly found in Indonesia today.
However, one type of dish managed not only to survive the far distances it traveled and the test of time, but it also inspired the creation of a wealth of new dishes customized to local tastes across the region. Curry and its variations, usually made by adding a generous amount of mixed spices and herbs into coconut milk (or yogurt in northern India) to make a rather thick gravy into which protein is then added, have now become much-loved cuisines, particularly in western part of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – where galangal and lemongrass are often added to give the dishes a distinctively Southeast Asian flavor. West Sumatra is particularly well-known for being home of some of Indonesia’s most famous dishes, including rendang. The province’s curry-like dishes, however, are a result of the intermarriage between Indian influences and new ingredients which were about to be introduced by the Europeans who would alter the global political landscape as they searched the Spice Islands and explored the world on a scale like no other had ever attempted before.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.