This mouth-watering combination of fried fish, vinegar, and Southeast Asian spices is a fitting introduction to the heritage cuisine of Malaysia’s Kristang community.
When it comes to gastronomy, Malacca is most well-known for its particular take on Baba Nyonya (or Peranakan) fare. But more attention should be paid to the food developed over centuries by the Kristang, a tight-knit Eurasian ethnic group that came into being with the intermarriage of Portuguese settlers and local Malay women starting in the 1500s. The Portuguese colonizers were eventually supplanted by the Dutch and then the British, two peoples that also exerted an influence on the Kristang kitchen, while Chinese and Indian immigrants who joined the community also left their mark.
No one has done more to propel Kristang culinary culture into the national spotlight than celebrity chef Melba Nunis, who ran the (now-shuttered) Kuala Lumpur restaurant Simply Mel’s with her three daughters and distilled her mother’s collection of over 200 heirloom recipes into A Kristang Family Cookbook, which was awarded top prize (Best in the World) in the Woman Chef category at the 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
I had the privilege of meeting Nunis less than three years ago while on assignment to write a story about the Kristang people and their endangered language and culture. At the time, she had just taken up residence at The Majestic Malacca, a heritage-themed hotel on the banks of the Malacca River that incorporates a restored 1920s Peranakan mansion.
Over just three days in Malacca, I must have eaten my weight in Kristang food. Nunis plied me with all manner of edible delights, including baked stuffed crab with homemade chili sambal and pickled pineapple, a Southeast Asian relative to the casquinhas of Macau (another former Portuguese outpost); Chinese-influenced eggplant cooked in soy sauce, sugar, and lime juice; a dry beef curry reminiscent of Goan Catholic cuisine.
I joined Nunis one morning on a tour of Malacca’s Central Market to source farm-fresh ingredients, followed by a private cooking class at the hotel. Our goal was to make two Kristang specialties: the fiery Christmas dish kari debal (devil’s curry) and my favorite, shallow-fried Spanish mackerel topped in thick, moreish sambal binagre. The sambal itself is reflective of the hybrid roots of the Kristang people, as it marries the Portuguese penchant for vinegar with the heady flavors of a Malay spice paste.
Though Nunis has since returned to her home in Kuala Lumpur, where she runs supper clubs for groups of at least six guests, the hotel’s upstairs restaurant still serves her home-style Kristang cuisine. And if you can’t wait until Malaysia reopens for tourism a few months down the line, why not take a shot at cooking Nunis’s fish with sambal binagre?
The required spices should be blended in a food processor, or, if you’re going the traditional route, pounded by hand in a mortar and pestle. I tried to replicate this dish less than a week after returning home from Malaysia, and much to my delight, it tasted just as I’d remembered. Perhaps this recipe will transport you back to Malacca as it did with me, or inspire you to seek out its Kristang culture the next time you go.
SAMBAL BINAGRE PESI (FISH WITH VINEGAR SAMBAL)
300–500 g Spanish mackerel steaks or 1 black pomfret
¼ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground white pepper
Cooking oil, as needed
20 g dried chilies, cut into short lengths and soaked to soften
200 g shallots, peeled
15 g candlenuts
2 tbsp/50 ml water
1 cup/250 ml water
4 tbsp vinegar
½ tbsp salt
3 tbsp sugar
A few drops of dark soy sauce
Chopped spring onion
1. To make the sambal, drain the dried chilies and place in a food processor with the shallots and candlenuts. Add water (not too much) and blend well, making sure the sambal remains a little coarse for more texture.
2. Wash and clean the fish, then pat dry with a paper towel. Season with turmeric, chili powder, salt and pepper.
3. Heat some oil in a pan over medium heat. Place the fish gently into the hot oil and fry on one side until the skin is crisp before turning over to cook the other side. Remove to a serving plate.
4. Reheat the pan and add more oil as necessary. Add the sambal paste and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes until fragrant.
5. Add the water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and dark soy sauce, and simmer over low heat until the sambal is thick.
6. Pour the sambal over the fried fish. Garnish with chopped spring onion and serve, ideally with steamed rice.