Gastropology 101

Food of the Olden Days in the Malay World

by Nadge Ariffin Photography FriedChillies on Sat, September 04, 2010

If you were in 15th century Melaka and invited to a palace shindig what would the food be like? Would there be castle wenches serving you lemongrass juice and nubile dancers teasing you with jogget-like moves? Our food historian goes back in time...

Asam pedas supporting sexy hunks of buffalo meat

It is the 15th century. The place is the royal palace of Melaka, a strategic port and center of a great trading empire that bears the same name as the city.

By all accounts it is a rich place, with goods from all over the known world available in its markets. And the wealth is reflected in the prosperity of the people, not least embodied in the Sultan’s palace itself; an impressive edifice built entirely of carved timber and raised five storeys on stilts without a single nail.

A kenduri or banquet is about to begin at the palace’s balai santapan or royal banquet hall. Guests have already arrived and are seated in the traditional manner; cross-legged on raised pangkin wood floors padded with soft exquisitely woven bamboo mats in geometric patterns.

The Sultan himself, as the host, is dining with the guests. There are Malay dignitaries from all over the Malay Peninsular, Sumatra and Borneo islands, as well as from further afield in the wider Malay Archipelago including their co-ethnic groups the Bugis from Sulawesi, the Javanese from the Majapahit kingdom and others, and also people from various Indian, Chinese and Arab communities who have long traded and even intermarried with the Malay locals and royals.

Presently, the Sultan signals to his Datuk Paduka Maharaja Lela (the Grand Chamberlain) for the food to be presented to the banquet guests.

What would the dishes be like?

The food would be undoubtedly diverse for at least two reasons. Firstly the Malay World is by itself host to a huge variety of flora and fauna, which for thousands of years the Malay groups and co-ethnics across the Archipelago had domesticated all that are edible. After all, the native wet rice was believed to be cultivated here since 8000BC. The variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices themselves here are mind-boggling.

Add to that the amount of game and meats available, although Malay culture itself is humble and shy of wild animals. Thus they are forbidden from eating for example, all carnivores; sparing tigers and reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles. Even all monkeys cannot be killed as these are long considered ancient cousins of humanity who did not pray hard enough to be uplifted by God to human status.

Secondly is the fact that Melaka and its vicinity are the centre of a trading network that was already global long before today’s marketing gurus made it a fashionable term. Exotic grains, domesticated dried meats and seafoods as well as preserved or precooked foodstuffs had long changed hands in its rich well-regulated markets; and redistributed throughout the empire’s trading network, from Melaka to Maluku to Mindanao; from the Peninsula to Papua to Polynesia.

All these foods would be found not only in Melaka and its royal kitchens, but just about everywhere around the relatively peaceful empire. There was, after all, no historic or oral record of any famine at any time under the rule of the Melaka Sultans.

As is the traditional Malay style of eating, the main meal is not particularly served in consecutive courses, but simply brought out as soon as it is ready and joins whatever is concurrently available on the table, so to speak.

After all, their staple diet which can be eaten with everything is rice, invariably boiled to which can be added an endless variety of seasonings from light oils to spices of many kinds (aromatic cloves, cinnamon bark etc.) and sprinkled with grated fried onions or chopped vegetable stems. On to this base, anything under the sun can be placed.

Nasi ulam was enjoyed then by all

Like a constellation of cuisinic planets around the star of rice is a stunning array of lauk-pauk or main dishes that include meats both bovine and avian, seafood both pisces and crustacean, and vegetables both flowered or fruited that are either fried, poached, steamed, boiled or sometimes outright burned, or even, raw!

Raw would in fact be the preferred way for serving a variety of ‘salads’: greens and vegetables or even fruits that are washed and cut. They are collectively referred to as ulam (plural; ulam-ulam). These would join the exquisitely cooked lauk-pauk; with each ulam dipped in special spicy hot sauces or sambal dips and eaten with the rice.

And the spices in the dishes! Too many of hundreds of types to even be mentioned here. Indeed the Malay World is synonymous with its Spice Islands; and Melaka was the very centre of its trade along what else could it have been called but the Spice Routes, the sea lanes between the Orient and India, Persia, Arabia to points further West. Melaka was not only its epicenter, but its master as well.

These heady spices graced every single Malay dish, some fully saturated with it, some with the restraint of “less-is-more”, some so hot it makes one snort, some so hidden you need to smile to acknowledge it. But it’s there, always.

And so you perform ambil lauk i.e. completing your mound of rice with scoops of your choice of any of the lauk-pauk and ulam-ulam arrayed before you, and they in turn competing for your attention in your own plate where you arrange your choices like a work of consumable personal art.

For this narrator, who was spiritually there in the palace, in the city, in the empire of Melaka in the 15th century, this is what you find on his plate…

The narrator does not pile his plate with everything he sees before him, he’s not a glutton. He chooses his dishes carefully.

First on his list to grace his rice is asam pedas kerbau dibetik. Asam pedas is an invariably red-hot mean-looking concoction gravy of spicy grated chillies, this one sporting sexy hunks of kerbau or buffalo meat that has been softened beforehand by marinate-boiling in betik muda, sexy young papaya fruit. That’s hot.

Next the narrator takes a serving of juicy otak-otak talam, a flattish leaf-wrapped contraption of deboned fish white-meat chunks that are spiced, marinated in its own juice and barbecued over a tepak arang (coal-tray burner); similar to how sate (satay, which indeed comes from salai di tepak) is cooked. At some point in its preparation, the blobby meat chunks give a look and feel of the texture of - bovine, hopefully - brain or otak, hence the name.

Finally in a healthy gesture, the narrator heaps in a good mix of fresh ulam-ulam raw salads. His favorites being the daun pegaga or centella leaves, a slice of jantung pisang or banana plant flower, strands of kacang panjang or Asiatic long beans, and topped off with petai stink beans – hardly odourous but healthily diuretic. These are smothered in liberal dips of cincalok, a local type of sambal or sauce made of fermented small shrimp, which goes superbly with salads and popular to this day.

To wash it all down, a simple mix of air limau nipis or lime juice that’s added with a dash of serai or lemongrass makes a most satisfying quencher that doubles up as a mouth-perfumer as well.

In fact any excess of this water triples up as a hand-washer too! This also deodorises the right hand that, in the traditional manner, is used for eating rice. Indeed eating with the hand allows you to not just enjoy the food’s taste, sight and smell but touch as well.

In the olden Malay culture of eating, it was not a must-have thing to have dessert after a main meal. But snacks could be had at any time of day, and so certainly after a formal meal too. Besides fruits, these snack-deserts would be any of a rich variety of kuih-muih or savoury cakes and cookies as well as bubur or pengat porridge-like snacks made of anything from banana to tapioca.

In this palace banquet, certainly an array of desserts as described would be served. But after the post-meal conversations and people begin to leave, guests would be given a small woven container with a parting gift, kuih bahulu. This is a simple biscuit-like mouth-sized snack made of savoury baked flour with any flavour such as pandanus can be added. It would be most fitting, as the biscuit’s name is abbreviated from “bawa ke hulu” (bring to the interior) i.e. bring it back to your home since it is a dry longer-lasting food that can withstand journeys.

Indeed, in one reading we’ve been though a long journey of food and history.

Recipe side: by The Charlie

There are few detailed recipes that survive from the Malacca Sultanate. As you have read, we have only glimpses to hypothesize what such a meal would have comprised of. But these are dishes that many old households still cook today. My mother herself still cooks asam pedas at least once a week - old Johorean habits die hard.

Because I come from a very traditional Asian family, I have been brought up to cook without recipes. For me, following a recipe is far more difficult than winging it - a classic mark of a home cook. In the case of the buffalo asam pedas, I merely used my family's usual recipe for asam pedas and substituted buffalo for fish. The addition of the torch ginger flower, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaf is to enhance the flavor of the gravy to go with red meat, and also to mask any lingering gaminess left in the buffalo. For the other recipes, I made sure I had all the ingredients and a sense of the proportions and I was on my way. This for me is the best way to cook: intuitively.

I do not, however, recommend you to hunt down buffalo meat for the asam pedas. While it is readily available in the local hypermarkets, the sheer effort it takes to utilize it is simply impractical. It did taste pretty decent in the end, like beef. But if I needed to boil it for 3 hours to get it to taste like beef, I'd rather just use beef. In fact, I would recommend the same recipe but with tetel, the fatty offcuts of beef that you can get for cheap at the farmer's markets.

Asam pedas kerbau

Quarter kilo of buffalo meat, cut into 2 inch chunks
Large bunch of papaya leaves

6 small red onions
2 cloves garlic
Thumb sized ginger
Half a thumb fresh turmeric

4 tbsp cili boh (made from dried chillies soaked and blended into a paste)

2 stalks laksa leaves

Juice squeezed from a fist sized lump of asam jawa

Sliced into strips
Half torch ginger flower
2 kaffir lime leaves
Third of a turmeric leaf


To prepare the buffalo meat, boil the meat in water with the papaya leaves until the meat is tender.
This may take up to 4 hours; keep topping up the water and stir the meat and leaves periodically so they don't stick to the pot.
Fry the pounded ingredients in oil until fragrant. Mix in the cili boh and continue to fry until the oil rises.
Strip the laksa leaves off the stalks and stir it into the cooking cili paste along with the torch ginger flower, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaf
Pour in the asam jawa juice and stir well.
Place the buffalo chunks into the gravy and make sure the meat is coated with all the gravy.
Season with salt and sugar to taste.
Keep it at a simmer until the gravy reduces and the flavours are balanced.


1 banana leaf, cut into 15cmx15cm pieces and passed over a flame to soften

6 shallots
2 cm piece of ginger
2 cm piece of fresh turmeric
4 cm piece of galangal
Handful of dried chillies, soaked then drained
2 stalks of lemongrass

Sliced finely
10 kadok leaves
2 kaffir lime leaves

2 fillets tenggiri, sliced into thin strips


1 cup thick coconut milk
2 egg yolks

Mix the pounded ingredients, the sliced leaves and the fish well.
Cook slowly with the coconut milk until the fish is firm.
Season with salt and sugar
Stir the egg yolks into the fish.

To wrap
Place about 3-4 tablespoons of the fish mixture in the centre of a banana leaf piece.
Pull up the sides of the leaf and secure with a toothpick or lidi, making sure there are no leaks.

To steam
Steam over a pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes.
Unwrap carefully and serve in the banana leaf itself.