Malaysian food gives me a sense of belonging.
Serena Coady

22 Mar 2021 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2021 - 12:52 PM

Childhood trips to Malaysia meant different things to different members of my family. Mum had routine dental work done, my sisters filled their suitcases with off-brand Hello Kitty swag, and I sought happiness with a red–top jar of pineapple tarts.

Every second Christmas, my family and I made the long journey from Canberra to Melaka, my mum's hometown. While air travel brought everything the modern child could ever want — the novelty of flight and unmonitored TV viewing — all I could think about were those pineapple tarts. A ball of spiced pineapple jam perched on a shortbread crust, these biscuits were a Kristang holiday staple.

Serena with her sisters Tizzy and Jasmin.

Kristang means "Christian". It is also the name of the Portuguese Malaysian ethnic group to which my family belongs. The community is known for its seaside settlement in Melaka, churches full of people with Catholic first names and Portuguese surnames, and a 500–year–old creole language down to 100 speakers. To me, Kristang means food. The kind of food born from your most gifted aunties and uncles. When most people think of Malaysian cuisine, beef rendang and nasi lemak are the first dishes to get the stomach grumbling. Kristang people form Malaysia's smallest ethnic minority, so the Eurasian delights of pineapple tarts, sugee cake, and curry devil are usually left off the menu. But to me, these are the flavours of family reunion.

"I sought happiness with a red–top jar of pineapple tarts."

In the 16th century, the Portuguese Empire introduced Malaysia to the pineapple. While pineapple tarts are popular in other parts of Southeast Asia, the recipe is rumoured to have been developed in Melaka, an old Portuguese trading port. The tarts have a buttery base with a distinctive mix of cinnamon, cloves, and star anise in the jam.  The complexity of flavours and textures reminded me of my own blended family. I was never fussy when it came to biscuits, but I knew the Iced VoVos and Tim Tams of home were nothing compared to God-tier pineapple tarts.

During summer holidays in Melaka, my sisters and I woke up whenever we liked, rising to the smell of incense seeping from the clay burner, the front door clattering as one of grandma's second cousins wandered in, or to the best wake–up call of all: "Ben kumi!" ("Come eat!"). Even the sound "koo–mee" is comforting, saying it aloud makes me feel as if I'm fenced in by a group hug.

Malaysian food
Malaysian food is heavily influenced by Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian cuisine. These influences extend from the use of the wok to the combinations of spices used in many popular dishes.

When we stumbled out of our shared air-conditioned bedroom — the Aussies suffered without it — we were greeted with a full spread of fruit, nasi lemak, fish curry, and roti canai served with kuah dhal. There were challenges to sniff the durian, finish all our ikan bilis (deep-fried anchovies), and to tempt indigestion with a roti eating contest. The last one was my speciality. I tied my hair back, shredded the bread with my fingers, and drowned each ribbon in dhal so I barely had to chew.

Satay grill in the front yard in Melaka.

On these mornings, I didn't need to rush to the school bus. I could sit and loiter at every dish. I also became aware of how little my mum and her six siblings slept. The energy they had for each other and all-day meal preparation seemed physically impossible. Our family was spread across Malaysia, Australia, the US, and the UAE, so it was rare we all came together. Whenever we did, we knew long nights drinking and talking by the mango tree were in store. It still amazes me that what was essentially a breakfast buffet materialised by 7am each day.

For my family, food was a way to transform the house into a cross-generational space. A means to physically conjure the past, to revive lived experiences and childhood memories with added richness. I don’t think I fully understood how fortunate I was to visit my mother’s cultural home and be connected to our heritage in this way.

"For my family, food was a way to transform the house into a cross–generational space."

When we returned to school, the classroom was alive with the chatter of summer holidays in Batemans Bay. My classmates pitched tents, cruised in caravans, and shared holiday homes with family friends. They were given unrestricted access to the soft drink esky, late bedtimes, and other freedoms unheard of during the school term. Still, I thought they were getting a raw deal. I wondered the 10–year–old's equivalent of: "What kind of cultural stimulation could be found two hours down the Kings Highway?" This was the standard I inadvertently held my holidays to. But I kept quiet. I knew it was like comparing sausage sangas and sambal  — our childhoods were worlds apart.

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For six weeks, I ate dinner with my hands if I wanted to. I took frisbees of oily roti, swished it around the saucy plate, and drank it down for breakfast. I would devour 100 pineapple tarts handmade by my favourite aunty, and still, there would be more left. Sure, the kids at school had extended bedtimes, but I could walk down the street and buy Malaysian fireworks if I had the coin.

Bogart says: "We'll always have Paris". In this same way, I had the marginally less cosmopolitan Melaka. In a predominantly white school  — a self–replenishing canteen of cultural insensitivities and pressures to conform  — memories of food and family reminded me that there was somewhere I belonged.

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