Who Are The Chettis Of Melaka? And What Is Hindu-Peranakan Cuisine?
No matter how many times you've visited Melaka, a UNESCO historic city, this may be the first time you're hearing of Kampung Chetti in Gajah Berang. Jonker Street, Melaka's main tourist strip, is peppered with markers of Baba-Nyonya culture, but few even realise the existence of Hindu-Peranakans, which is ironic considering they are the *original Peranakans. Nevertheless, the Chetti community has been gaining more visibility, especially since UNESCO chair project manager Eric Olmedo began facilitating monthly tours to the village. Chef Darren Teoh, too, has been invaluable for spreading awareness viva voce. What follows are T.Dining's takeaways after spending a memorable day with the Chetti community.
*As early as the 1300s, Indian tradesmen from South India sailed to Sumatra for commerce. Melaka's strategic location made it a popular stop over, and a number of Hindu tradesmen chose to put down roots in the heaving port. Assimilation was requisite for business, cultural and personal reasons—thus was born the Chetty or the Chetti, a unique people with their own distinctive culture.
Chili, Grated Coconut & Creamy Fish Roe
Equal parts community centre, gallery and home, Madam Wenila's residence is always full of family members and friends, but today sees an especially large number of strangers. The shy, pretty lady is still getting accustomed to hosting her daytime 'supper clubs,' as her husband's untimely demise means having to play a more proactive role in the family finances. Ever since community leader Nadarajan Raja passed away in January 2018, his people have been headless in both senses of the word—lacking a director and discombobulated.
8 different dishes have been laid out buffet-style next to a drink dispenser full of ice lemon tea and fresh fruit for dessert. Sat next to a motley crew from Dewakan (Chef Darren Teoh's doing), I experience my first taste of Hindu-Peranakan cuisine. There are traits I recognise from Baba-Nyonya cuisine (an abundance of astringent/minty ulam) and many that I don't.
"If you take a look at this dish, namely kerisik kulit timun, it very much resembles nasi kerabu, which says a lot about the creolised nature of Peranakan communities," Olmedo chips in. "The nasi ulam of the Baba-Nyonyas, the nasi kerabu of the Siam-Siam in the North-Eastern part of the Peninsula, notwithstanding this very dish by the Melaka Chettis all have something in common—a very systematic combination of two cultural systems, the settler cultural system (Chinese, Indian, or Siamese) and the host cultural system (Malay)."
Hindu Deities & Malay Dress
Lunch is followed by a 'digestif'—an optional promenade around Kampung Chetti. Lead by Punisha Pathair, the tour of the tiny neighbourhood (5km2) begins at a multicoloured, two-century-old building with two aliases: Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple (official) and Dato' Chachar (colloquial); the latter caught on after the temple gained prominence for healing skin diseases (the Malay word chachar can be loosely translated to 'smallpox').
Note that the Chetti identify as Hindus while also giving a nod to facets of Malay culture and Chinese ancestral worship.
The Chetti Museum is impossible to miss but too often ignored. A hop and a skip from Kampung Chetti's arched entrance, the boxy building was previously thought to be a police station by yours truly on previous road trips to Melaka.
The artefacts here are organised by occasion (ceremonial versus habitual) before forking into more specific purposes (kitchen, bedroom or bathroom) and include betel nut pounders, old fashioned Singer sewing machines, a rickety wedding plaice, a monumental rice pounder, oil paintings, and yellowed photographs; it is thrilling to see Wenilla and the very same relatives we'd met over lunch in the last of these.
Eager to take us even closer to the heart of a Chetti home, Punisha makes a pitstop at her parents'. The jangle of bracelets and rustling of shopping bags announces her aunt's timely arrival.
Dressed in her Sunday best and dripping in costume jewellery, Madam Thanapakiam perfectly exemplifies the Chetti's unique culture, where the fairer sex swaps the sari for the kebaya (long-sleeved blouse) and a sarong. A kerongsang (three-tiered brooch) and kasut manik (painstakingly beaded shoes) would complete the look on more formal occasions.
Men, on the other hand, might be seen in a baju cekak musang (shirt with stiff raised collar), sarong pelikat (chequered sarong), thundu (long cloth tied around the waist and draped across one shoulder or worn as a headdress), and thalapa (folded headdress).
Dainty apom and durian-laced kaya is passed around as Madam Thanapakiam regales us with news from her latest town hall meeting. Attended by anyone and everyone who identifies as Peranakan, including Baba-Nyonyas, Chettis and Kristangs, such get-togethers are a highlight in her social calendar.
21st Century Standing
Of Kristang blood, Noel Smith, chef de partie at Dewakan, is cheerily describing his ancestry when I suggest making a family tree.
"It’d be more like a family bush," he laughs. "There are so few of us. You've met Chef Melba Nunis? Judging by our surnames, I’m probably related to her."
Later, I ask Olmedo to comment on the dilution and disappearance of the Chettis, to which he eloquently answers:
With less than 500 individuals who identify as Chettis in Malaysia today, this might be the last generation before Chetti culture vanishes.
"One can argue that it is not such a sad fate for the community to become assimilated into the mainstream culture; it is just how social change works. In some ways, one may be right. We need to rejoice the fact that Chetti youth now enjoy the freedom to marry outside the community, are able to device big dreams, and live their own ambitions in the capital city or overseas—that is the bright side of globalisation.
The dark side of globalisation is cultural oblivion. As one of the first creolised social groups during Melaka Sultanate, the Chettis bear the very DNA of Malaysia. A simple formula combining business pragmatism, relative cultural accommodation and respect for the Other, leading to harmonious togetherness. As an anthropologist, I do not wish to pay tribute to this formula in a mausoleum. I would like for both the heritage and the formula to strive via responsible tourism. If we choose to omit transmitting a legacy of harmony living-togetherness, what value system is left to pass on to the next generation?"
Experience Kampung Chetti Melaka:
Of mixed-race ancestry himself (French-Spanish), sociologist Eric Olmedo is lauded for studying and presenting Peranakan culture in ways that are not tokenising but intelligent and inclusive. The principal research fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA) organises monthly visits to the Chetti community and can be reached at 012-550 3622 or email@example.com.
- Photography Sarah Lim