Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

International Awards Winner · Singapore Malaysia Food History 🇸🇬 johorkaki@gmail

What's Cendol Got to Do with Mee Tai Mak & Faloodeh

Cendol

Where did cendol come from?

There are two hypotheses out there.

Some say cendol came from faloodeh, a sweet cold dessert from Persia (today's Iran).

Others theorise that cendol is derived from mee tai mak or rat noodles 🤔

So, who is right?


Cendol is a cold dessert of (usually) green colour noodles served in a bowl or cup with coconut milk, coconut palm sugar and ice. In Indonesia, cendol is also known as dawet, especially in Central and East Java. Cendol is also found in Singapore and Malaysia. Variations of cendol are found in Indochina.

Cendol

This cendol is from Geylang Serai Cendol stall founded in 1910, the oldest in Singapore.

The name cendol comes from the shape of the noodles in traditional versions of the dessert. The noodles are thick in the middle with pointy ends. In Indonesian, "jendol" means "swollen" which is how traditional cendol noodles look like.

Cendol noodles are usually made with rice flour but can also be made with arrowroot, sago, tapioca, mung bean or a blend of different flours. Cendol noodles are usually infused with pandan leaf (screw pine) juice. In Indonesia, basil leaf juice, burnt paddy straw, and many other ingredients may be used to make cendol noodles.

The flour and pandan leaf juice are boiled till they become a starchy paste. The paste is hand pressed against a perforated sieve so the short stubby noodles past through the holes and drop into a container of cold water (usually cooled with ice).

Cendol (known as dawet in Central & East Java) is mentioned in the Kakawin Kresnayana (Javanese poem on the Journey of Krishna) which was written in 1104 during the era of the Kediri kingdom (1042 - 1222) in Central & East Java.

One prevailing hypothesis has it that cendol / dawet was derived from the Persian faloodeh.

In its most basic form, faloodeh is a cold dessert of rice or wheat vermicelli with ice, lime juice and rose syrup.

Arab_Sail_Boat

As far back as the sixth century, Arabic traders transited the Malay archipelago while plying goods between Arabia and China. They also came to the Malay archipelago for spices. Some Arabic traders also married locals and settled in Indonesia.

According to this hypothesis, these Arabic traders brought faloodeh to Java, and it evolved into cendol / dawet.

The historical timeline of presence of Arabic traders in the Malay archipelago since the 500s and the mention of dawet in Kakawin Kresnayana in the early 1100s, support the hypothesis that faloodeh and dawet are related.

Faloodeh noodles are long and slender like vermicelli as they are made by pressing cooked starch through small perforations in a sieve or hand press into cold water (usually chilled with ice).

This differs from jendol (cendol / dawet) where the traditional noodles are short, stubby, thick in the middle and pointy at the ends. The Indonesian word jendol means "swollen" referring to the shape of the noodle.

Cendol noodles also differ from faloodeh vermicelli in that the latter is always just rice or wheat flour without infused colour and flavour e.g. pandan leaf juice.

In his book Nyonya Heritage KitchenDr Ong cited Katy Biggs' suggestion that cendol may have been derived from mee tai mak.

Mee tai mak 米苔目 noodles are made by pressing rice dough through a perforated sieve and dropping them into a container where they are boiled.

Mee_Tai_Mak

Mee tai mak noodles are very versatile as they are basically rice. Mee tai mak can be stir fried, blanched and served with sauce, or served in soup, even curry.

They can also be served in a bowl of sugar syrup and crushed ice i.e. tai mak ice 苔目冰.

The Peranakans of Malaysia and Singapore call it tai bak or Nyonya cendol.

The Peranakans like to colour their mee tai mak with rose syrup (pink) and butterfly pea flower (blue).


Traditionally, mee tai mak is made by adding water to cooked rice (leftovers in the past) and hand kneading it into a paste. The lumps of rice dough are then hand pressed through a perforated metal sieve. The rice noodles passing through the sieve drop into a pot of boiling water. The noodles are cooked again and then transferred to a pot of cold water to cool.

Traditional mee tai mak noodles are short, fat and stubby with pointy ends, hence they are also called rat noodles 老鼠粉.

Mai tak mak can also be completely hand roll with no tools at all. Which means that the dish travels well and can be emulated easily as little or no tools are required.


Today, cendol is often made with modern hand presses that produce long noodles instead of "swollen" noodles that look like rat noodles 老鼠粉. The same happened to mee tai mak.

Nowadays, especially for bigger scale production of mee tai mak, large perforated sieves are used. The resulting mee tai mak noodles are longer, more consistent in diameter and not pointy at the ends.

A temple of the Kahuripan kingdom

So did rat noodles inspire cendol noodles?

According to British historian Victor Purcell, Chinese migration to the Malay archipelago occurred in three stages. During the earliest stage, Chinese traders settled in coastal areas of the archipelago when it was ruled by various kingdoms. Examples include Chinese settlements in East Java under the Hindu-Buddhist Kahuripan kingdom (1009-1042).

The convergence of historical timeline of Chinese migration, mention of dawet in Javanese literature and location (East Java) supports Katy Biggs' hypothesis that dawet (cendol) and mee tai mak could be related. (More research is required.)

Cendol

So, can we conclude then that cendol or dawet is derived from mee tai mak?

Here's the thing. 

The Malay archipelago being at the cross roads between the great civilisations of East and West, its cuisine are made up of "fusion" dishes that amalgamates the indigenous with influences from foreign cultures.

The spark of genius that created cendol occurred around 1,000 years ago but was unrecorded. And, during these 1000 years, the dish evolved making it harder to pinpoint its roots accurately.

So, while the stubby "swollen" cendol noodles may point towards mee tai mak for its inspiration, the other defining ingredients i.e. coconut milk and palm sugar came from other influences.

Hence, the research on the origins of cendol is not quite done yet.

But, where did cendol come from?

It comes from Java as there is nothing like it in Iran or China today.

History of cendol 👈 click


Faloodeh & Cendol 👈 click



Written by Tony Boey on 27 Mar 2023


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