Chapter 5, Part 4
Long after being considered merely as medicine, in the 15th century the Europeans’ perception toward spices began to shift as they were used more in local cuisines. Spices added an exotic taste to the continent’s traditional dishes, and demand from royal families in England, France and beyond pushed their prices really high. Like the Gutenberg Bible, cookbooks were spread all over Europe containing recipes where spices were important ingredients. Until the 15th century, spices made their way to European markets by way of Constantinople, then a major trading port connecting the Middle East and Asia to Europe. However, the city’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453 practically cut supply of spices to the West, resulting in numerous voyages to find direct sea routes from Europe to the Spice Islands.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish who had discovered sea routes to the fabled islands gradually introduced more than 2,000 plants native to the Americas to other parts of the world, including Asia. Among the crops they brought across the oceans to their colonies overseas were chili, corn, eggplant, pineapple, sapodilla, custard apple, pumpkin, carrot, potato, tomato, peanut, and cassava. This introduction would forever change the way Asians eat.
Chili has now become an integral part of Southeast Asian culinary scene. Despite the region’s heat and humidity all year round, the locals for some reason developed an affinity for the burning sensation of different kinds of chili peppers. In Indonesia, chili has become a staple food, so much so each region in the country has its own sambal – a sauce made from ground or chopped chilies mixed with other ingredients. Some like their sambal sweet by adding sweet soy sauce, while others like to add shrimp paste to give a strong umami flavor to the mixture. Some like their sambal raw, others prefer it fried. In Bali, chopped shallot and lemongrass give their sambal a fresh taste, on the other hand in the southern part of Sumatra people like to mix their sambal with fermented durian.
However, the Iberians’ contribution to the evolution of Southeast Asian food was not limited only to introducing new, exotic edible plants. In Malacca, meat consumption was higher than other places in the region, thanks to Portuguese penchant for meat-based dishes. Various methods for cooking meat were introduced to the locals, including assado (roasting), recheado (mixing meat with spices), and guisado (stewing). Initially, these influences were adopted by the Kristang people – a mainly Christian community with mixed Portuguese and Malaccan descent. But gradually, they reached Sumatra across the Strait of Malacca, and beyond. Today, traces of Portuguese influence in Indonesia are still palpable in some Indonesian words, for instance mentega (from manteiga – butter), kaldu (from caldo – stock), markisa (maracujá – passion fruit), and keju (from queijo – cheese).
The Dutch, on the other hand, treated the spices, fruits and plants from their colonies merely as commodities. Making as much profit as possible was far more important than enriching their dishes and introducing Dutch cooking techniques to the locals in Asia. Eventually that changed, and in modern Indonesia some contemporary dishes reflect the past influences of the Dutch during their colonial period in the archipelago.
In the 18th century, West Sumatra’s pepper-driven economy was thriving, thanks to the high demand from the Americas and Europe. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Minangkabau people grew fondness of adding pepper in their dishes. The locals preferred chili to pepper because they believed the latter made the blood hot. Hubert Joseph Jean Lambert Ridder de Stuers, a Dutch military commander stationed in Padang – West Sumatra’s capital and largest city – from 1824 to 1829, mentioned about a local resident’s comparison between the two spices. “[Chili] is hot in the mouth but pleasant in the stomach, while [pepper] makes both mouth and stomach hot.” De Stuers did add that the locals quite possibly opted for reaping high profits by selling the pepper cultivated in their land rather than consuming it themselves.
However, in the central part of the island of Java – across the strait to the southeast of Sumatra – the Javanese like other flavors better than their Sumatran counterparts. The combined taste of sweetness and savory is now identified with Javanese food, and thanks to the relatively warm reception of the island’s royal courts toward the Dutch, dishes inspired by food from the former colonial power are now part of the Javanese culinary scene.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.