KUALA LUMPUR: You’re missing something if you haven’t sampled the cuisine of the Melaka Chettis. And now you have no excuse not to try it even if you can’t go to Melaka. You can buy a book of recipes that the community has recently published.
The Melaka Chettis are descendants of Indian traders from Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast who first set foot here in the 15th century and married local women. Their mother tongue is Malay.
Even if they don’t speak Tamil, it is clear that their customs, traditions and festivals are still Hindu-based.
Roy Anandthan Padiachee, project director and vice-president of the Melaka Chetti Heritage Association Malaysia (MCHAM), estimates there are around 30 families, or roughly 150 Melaka Chettis, who still live in the heart of Kampung Budaya Chetti Melaka.
The recipe book that was recently published is called “The Melaka Chetti Kitchen: Culinary Journey of 500 Years.”
The book is more than just a collection of recipes. It documents a rich culinary history and is a tender snapshot of a small community at risk of losing its traditions and way of life.
Traditional Chetti recipes have always been passed down from generation to generation through the Chettis’ women, who have long been gatekeepers of the culture.
Not much is publicly known about the Chettis’ cuisine despite the community’s long presence in Melaka.
“Unfortunately,” Roy said, “not many of the community members see the changing times, migration and intermarriage as a threat to the survival of the community.
“But some of us realised this need for documentation and we felt we should publish a recipe book.
“When the opportunity came, we grabbed it and took on the challenge of putting together not just a collection of recipes but a culinary history book.”
Members of the community worked on the book with food journalist Julie Wong and academic Dr David Neo, both of whom are experts in Peranakan culture.
The recipes came primarily from four women from the community: Nancy Goh, who married into the community; Tanapakiam Ratnasamay; G Santha Chitty and Indrani Sathasavam Pillay.
The book is dedicated to Indrani, who died before it was published.
Readers would recognise the muhibbah nature of the Melaka Chetti cuisine, fusing Malay food with Indian and Chinese flavours.
However, some of the dishes are unique to the Chettis, and these include kueh kanda kasturi, sambal timun santan, sambal belimbing and timun cili cuka.
The community’s Indian heritage is still visible, with dhal and kari kambing featuring in the Chetti staple diet.
The book also hones in on the relationship between food and ancestral worship, as seen during Parchu Bhogi, a harvest festival celebrated by the community.
Typically held a day before Pongal in January, the festival includes prayers in which some 21 dishes are served to long departed forefathers.
These prayers are often said in silence. The dishes are placed on an odd number of banana leaves before the worship commences. The ancestors are soon called upon to join in the festivities.
The feast is complemented by some of the communities’ staple dishes, and nasi lemak kukus is often the showstopper on such days.
Occasions like the Parchu Bhogi show how food is deeply rooted in the identity of the Chettis. If these recipes are forgotten, there may be no way of truly knowing the lived experiences of the Melaka Chettis.
“The Melaka Chetti Kitchen: Culinary Journey of 500 Years” can be purchased at RM159.90 on the MCHAM website, Czip Lee Bangsar and The Bendahari in Melaka.
MCHAM will channel proceeds from the book towards the provision of care for the elderly and towards an education fund for Melaka Chetti youths.