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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Historical Roots of Singapore Food from Sang Nila Utama to Raffles - Year 1299 to 1819

Photo credit: Wikipedia
In the last episode, "Singapore Food in 1000 AD", we ended with Sang Nila Utama's arrival in Temasek in 1299. In this episode, we carry on from where we left off in 1299 and travel through time to 1819, the year Raffles first stepped foot on Singapore. Let's go, we have more than 500 years of food history to digest. 

After its crushing defeat in 1025 in the epic sea battle in the Malacca Straits by the Chola empire from south India, the power of the Srivijaya empire based in Palembang diminished greatly.


While the Srivijayans waned, the Majapahit was rising. The Majapahit empire based in Trowulan (near modern Surabaya) in east Java was established in 1293 and was muscling out the Srivijayans as their power spread across the Indonesian archipelago and Malay peninsula. [The Majapahit ruled Indonesia until it fell under the Dutch in 1517.]

To get out of the Majapahit's way, a Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama left Pelambang to look for greener pastures further afield. He landed in Temasek which was then most likely just a pirates' nest (i.e. Orang Laut villages).

Sang Nila Utama decided to establish his kingdom here and named it Singapura after seeing a red fur, black head, white breasted beast which he was told was a singa i.e. lion.

Sang Nila Utama and his successors were left in peace in their kingdom of Singapura which was to last for 99 years. During this time, Singapura facilitated traders from China, India and Arabia. The Chinese came here for hornbill casques (more valuable than elephant tusks), "laka wood" (agarwood?), red gold, blue satin etc. 

There were fishing and farming settlements in Singapura. There were small Chinese settlements some probably facilitating business and traders waiting for the winds to take them home. (Those were the days of wind powered boats, so sailors have to wait at ports for months for the right wind to take them to their destinations.)

Image credit: Wikipedia
The Majapahit empire finally caught up with the runaway prince's (Sang Nila Utama) kingdom of Singapura during the reign of its fifth king, Parameswara in 1398.

There were differing accounts in the Malay Annals and by the Portuguese, but both involved internal divisions and palace intrigue. A faction opposing Parameswara secretly invited the Majapahit to attack Singapura.

With the enemy at the gates, Parameswara fled Singapura.

While on the run, Parameswara was resting under a Melaka tree (Indian Gooseberry) by a river (today's Sungai Melaka river). He then saw a mouse deer (a tiny, normally timid animal) fighting back and kicking back fiercely at his hunting dogs.

Parameswara saw this as a good omen and decided to settle here and rebuild his kingdom. He named it after the tree he was resting under, Malacca.

Parameswara converted from Buddhism to Islam, called his kingdom the Malacca Sultanate and took on a new name Sultan Iskandar Shah.

The extent of the Sultanate in the 15th century
By Gunawan Kartapranata - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Founded in 1398, the Malacca Sultanate flourished and at its peak controlled the Malay peninsula, the Malacca Straits, central Sumatra and the Riau islands.

The Malacca Sultanate allied with China's Ming dynasty which protected it from the Siamese, Acehnese and the mighty Majapahit empire of Indonesia.

Sultan Iskandar Shah (Parameswara) visited China in 1405, his son Sultan Megat Iskandar Shah in 1414, and grandson Sultan Sri Maharaja in 1424.

The Ming admiral Cheng Ho made seven voyages between 1405 and 1433, and called on the Malacca Sultanate five times.

Relations between the Malacca Sultanate and Ming dynasty was so good that the emperor Cheng Hua (reign 1464 - 1487) sent a princess Hang Li Poh to marry Sultan Mansur Shah (reign 1456 - 1477) as his fifth wife.

Sultan Mansur Shah settled Hang Li Poh and her 500 accompanying courtiers at Bukit Cina. This would be the largest known Chinese settlement in southeast Asia in the 15th century. There might have been small numbers of Chinese traders who settled here earlier and after Hang Li Poh.

Today, Bukit Cina is a cemetery, and Hang Li Poh's still functioning well is a well visited historic site.

Some of the Chinese settlers in Malacca married locals. Their descendants are known as Peranakan which means "local born" in Malay. The men are known as Baba and the ladies as Nyonya.

The Peranakans adopted and adapted local dress, customs, language and food etc but did not convert to Islam.

History of peranakan food
They created Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine which has Malay and Chinese roots but is a genre by itself with many unique dishes. The first dishes that come to my mind are ayam buah keluak, Nyonya laksa, otak otak, Penang asam laksa, etc., and numerous sweet desserts.

More history of peranakan food 👈 click

From 1400, the Europeans entered the Age of Exploration, a period of founding new territories for European crowns which lasted till the 1600s.

Around the same period, while the Europeans were coming out, the Ming dynasty retreated to their own borders thus leaving vacuums in southeast Asia for other powers to fill. This was a great turning point in world history.

Every European maritime power, the Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch and English all came to help themselves, eventually even landing in China itself.

The first Portuguese expedition to Malacca arrived in 1509. The expedition was ambushed by Sultan Mahmud Shah's forces but escaped leaving some 20 prisoners behind.

This gave the Portuguese the perfect excuse to return two years later in 1511 to sack the city. The Portuguese ruled Malacca for 130 years from 1511 to 1641.

Intermarriage between the Portuguese and locals created an Eurasian community in Malacca known as Kristang. The Kristang community have their own language and cuisine.

The most famous Kristang dish is perhaps Curry Debal or more famously Devil Curry. It is a very spicy curry chicken dish with chili, candlenut, galangal, vinegar etc.

Portuguese Settlement restaurants in Malacca
Another Kristang dish which I like a lot is Portuguese style baked fish. The spicy fish is wrapped in tin foil and baked by grilling the bundle on a flat iron griddle.

The epok epok is probably derived from the Portuguese empanada. The epok epok is often confused with the curry puff. It is often referred to as the Malay curry puff or even the "Malay word for curry puff".

History of curry puff and epok epok
Unlike the curry puff which is derived from British puff pastry with laminated dough for its layered shell, the epok epok shell has just one single layer. Epok epok as a derivative of the empanada can have curried and non-curried fillings. Curry puffs on the other hand have curried fillings as defined by its name.

More history of epok epok and curry puff 👈 click

When Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, Malacca's Sultan Ahmad Shah fled south but never gave up on regaining Malacca from the Portuguese. His son Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah II sought to rebuild the empire from Johor. Founded at the Johor River in 1528, the kingdom was named the Johor Sultanate. The chance for revenge against the Portuguese came when the Dutch showed up in southeast Asia in the early 1600s.

The Stadhuys in Malacca. Image credit: Wikipedia
The Dutch with the help of the Johor Sultanate drove the Portuguese out of Malacca in 1641. In return for the favour, the Dutch promised to leave the Johor Sultanate in peace. The Dutch stayed in Malacca until 1825 but their focus was on Batavia (today's Jakarta), the centre of their prized jewel in Asia, the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia). The Dutch occupied Malacca to make sure it doesn't challenge Batavia and no other power control the Malacca Straits.

The Dutch ruled Malacca for 184 years but didn't leave much of an imprint on Malaysia or Singapore food. (They influenced Indonesian food more.)

Barquillos in Madrid, Spain. Image credit: Wikipedia
A visible Dutch legacy in Malaysia / Singapore food is Kueh Belanda or more famously love letters or kueh kapit (which means "pressed biscuit" in Malay).

Though known as kueh Belanda which means Dutch biscuit in Malay, it is actually derived from the Spanish barquillo.

The Spanish barquillo came to Malacca by way of the Dutch because the Spaniards ruled The Netherlands for 92 years (1556–1648).

Kueh Kapit
Kueh kapit is a thin batter of rice and tapioca flour blend, eggs, sugar and coconut milk between two iron plates in a long calliper. It is cooked by grilling over a charcoal filled trough.

Kueh Belanda
The biscuits are either rolled into a little tube (barquillo) or folded like a small handkerchief. It is crackly crisp and tasted sweet with a subtle eggy and coconut fragrance.

I prefer the traditional rolled type cooked over charcoal as that was what I remembered from the 1960s. The folded type, I saw only maybe a decade or two later.

In the 1700s, with the centre of trade in Batavia, Malacca and Singapura were backwaters. Singapura became a proverbial fishing village and land base of Orang Laut.

In a secret attempt to entice the British to check Dutch power in southeast Asia, Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV offered the British East India Company a foothold in Singapore. This offer was not taken up, and the British returned only after more than 100 years later.

Malacca Sultanate Royal Banquet
Based on research by Professor Shaharudin and Chef Norzalina published in their book Air Mata Raja, during the Malacca and Johor Sultanate era, food was made with ingredients harvested from farms, from the sea, mangroves and beaches, and hunted from the forests. There were deer, chicken, snail, shellfish, fish, seaweed, coconut, etc. Local herbs, grass and fruits like lemongrass, mango, calamansi, ginger etc were used for their fragrances.

As Malacca was a spice trading hub, spices like cloves and turmeric etc were commonly used. Down in Johor / Singapura, the royals were probably able to get spices but commoners may have difficulties. Nevertheless, local ingredients should be available.

After attending the "Royal Banquet" by Chef Norzalina at the launch of Air Mata Raja, my impression was that food of the Malacca and Johor Sultanate era was very agreeable even to modern palates.

Things started to change again in Singapura when the British returned.

In search of a foothold in southeast Asia, Raffles of the British East India Company first stepped foot on Singapore in 1819. It would open a new chapter in the history of Singapore (but we shall leave that to the next episode).

In the previous episode - Singapore food in 1000 AD, 800 years before Raffles arrived in Singapore.

In the next episode - The Golden Age of the British Empire to the fall of Singapore in World War II. What was Singapore food like during this period?


Researchgate - Peranakan food
Researchgate - Kristang food

Date: 13 Jun 2020

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