Singapore and Malaysia are both multi-cultural/multi-racial societies with 3 major races: Chinese (mainly Fujianese, Hakka, Cantonese & Teochew), Malay and Indian (mainly Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu, Punjabi & Bengali). Throughout the past 200 years, the three major races have assimilated, borrowed, adapted and influenced each other’s cuisines, to form Malaysia and Singapore’s own versions of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines, and contain dishes which one would not be able to find in China or India themselves.
Two of these early-fusion dishes are the Chinese “chneh hu” and the Indian “pasembur”, both unique to Singapore & Malaysia. Both dishes share some strikingly similar characteristics: both are basically salads with julienned cucumbers and jicama as a base, topped with a multitude of ingredients: crisp-fried fritters, pan-fried tofu, hard-boiled egg, etc.
And both are slathered with a spicy, sweet-sour tomato-chili-based dressing, though the Chinese “chneh hu” would be less spicy than its Indian counterpart.
Both dishes appealed to the Chinese, Indian, Malay and other races in Malaysia and Singapore. I personally regard the two as very distinctly different dishes, and would decide which to have, depending on whether I want to “eat Chinese” or “Indian” on any given instance.
Both dishes are obviously results of cross-borrowing of food cultures between the Teochew/Chaozhou/Chiuchow-Chinese on one side, and their Tamil-Indian counterparts on the other.
And the respective dishes had evolved through the past decades to become their standard forms as we knew them to be today. “Chneh hu” are always sold by Chinese hawkers, whereas “pasembur” would always be sold only by Indian hawkers, without exception.
The present generation of Singaporeans and Malaysians would be familiar with both dishes, as the current forms of both dishes were achieved perhaps half a century back. But no one has bothered to delve deeper into the origins of the two dishes - how they started, and exactly when & where the evolutionary process began for both of them.
A year back, Dr Ong Jin Teong, the renowned Singapore-based author of Penang Heritage Food had asked me collaborate with him to research on the dishes’ origins, and also seek to answer the age-old question which our countrymen would ask: which came first, the Chinese “chneh hu” or the Indian “pasembur”?
Penang Monthly, by the Penang state government, had published the piece which Dr Ong and I co-wrote, in this month (Dec 2021)'s issue: