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Austronesian Roots of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore Food Culture

My image of Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean cuisine is both like kueh lapis (multilayered cake) and a melting pot. Our cuisine is like kueh lapis made up of layers of food culture over thousands of years - each layer of culinary culture brought by successive migration waves.

The culinary cultures did not stay separate like the layers of kueh lapis but over time blend together like ingredients stewing in a melting pot, resulting in unique Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean cuisines. Such is the open and inclusive nature of our cuisine.

At the most foundational layer of our cuisine is the food of Austronesians who came to the Malay archipelago and Malay peninsula some 3,500 years ago (1500 BC). They were then followed by Tamil (100 AD), Chinese (600 AD), Arabians (700 AD) and Europeans (1500 AD). Each wave of contacts / migrants brought their own culinary culture which add more layers to our kueh lapis and flavours / aromas to our melting pot.

The fundamental role of Austronesians in our food culture is not much talked about now but we can still taste and smell their pervasive influence in the food we eat today.

Some 6,000 years ago Austronesians hopped across the Taiwan Straits from China to Taiwan island. DNA testing of skeletal remains of Liangdao Man in Fujian province (dated 8,000 years before present) linked him to contemporary Austronesian tribesmen of Taiwan.

With their catamarans, Austronesians island hopped from Taiwan, crossed the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.

Austronesians arrived in the Philippines some 4,000 years ago. At the furthest, they reached Madagascar (west) in 500 AD, Easter Island (east) in 900 AD and New Zealand (south) in 1200 AD.

Linguists traced the extant of Austronesian migration by mapping languages with Austronesian roots from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

We can also map the foodprint footprint of Austronesian migration through food. Buried deep under the layers of Indian, Chinese, Arabian, and European influence, we are still able to discern the Austronesian roots of our food culture in familiar spices and food ingredients. 

Here are three examples to illustrate the legacy of Austronesians in our food culture. (This illustrative list is not meant to be exhaustive.)

We start with the example of pandan leaves which are ubiquitous in Malay, Indonesian and Peranakan cuisine, and loved for its sweet flavour and fragrance.

Pandan leaf puree used to make the green colour rice noodles of chendol is the defining feature of the dish.

Pandan leaves are used to flavour sweet soups (e.g. cheng tng), cook fragrant chicken rice, bake pandan cakes (sponge cakes), make kaya (coconut jam), wrap rice dumplings, wrap fried chicken, etc.

Leaves from giant pandan species were used to make crab claw sails for Austronesian catamarans - the iconic flimsy wind powered canoes that conquered the Indian and Pacific Oceans thousands of years ago. In the Philippines, pandan leaves are still used to make baskets, mats, etc. 

The origin of candlenut is unknown but was first cultivated in the Indonesian Moluccas islands (Sulawesi) and Austronesians took it to Malaysia, Madagascar and the Pacific thousands of years ago. Today, candlenut remains essential in numerous Malay, Indonesian, and Peranakan dishes. Candlenut is used in satay sauce, mee siam, curry laksa, rendang, sambal, etc. 

Candlenut known in Malay as Buah Keras and Indonesian as Kemiri is ground into an oily paste and used in Malay cuisine to thicken curries and to give it a subtle nutty taste. Indonesians make sambal kemiri relish by grinding toasted candlenut together with chili pepper. The Hawaiians have a relish of ground toasted candlenut and salt known as Inamona.

Rice is central in the food culture of our region. Nasi lemak (coconut milk flavoured rice) is the national dish of Malaysia. Nasi goreng (fried rice) is one of Indonesia's national dishes. Hainanese chicken rice is considered the unofficial national dish of Singapore.

Rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze river delta of China some 12,000 years ago. Austronesian people from southern China crossed into Taiwan between 5,500 and 4,000 years ago bringing rice (and millet) with them.

Between 4,000 to 2,500 years ago, Austronesians from Taiwan crossed into Luzon island in the Philippines and commenced rice cultivation there. From Luzon, Austronesians spread across the Malay archipelago and Malay peninsula.

In particular, rice cultivation thrived in Indonesia's high rainfall and rich volcanic soil, and became central in the culture of many regional communities in Indonesia. By 2,500 years ago, rice cultivation was already well established in Java and Bali island which remained the most important rice producing regions of Indonesia to this day.

Written by Tony Boey on 17 Jan 2022


Image of kueh lapis courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Taiwan aborigines courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Austronesian migration courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of crab claw sail catamaran courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of rice terrace courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of crab claw sail catamaran courtesy of Wikipedia.

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