Cendol is the Malaysian name for the a popular South East Asian dessert dish that you find served, mostly by street vendors, across both West and East Malaysia. The same basic dish is popular in most other South East Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, however, Malaysians lay claim to the modern version of the dish which includes ice as being a Malaysian invention.
Cendol varies a lot in term of ingredients, and even the way it is served, which is sometimes layered in a glass and sometimes in a bowl. All the different varieties, however, share the same four basic ingredients:
- Thin green worm like jellies
- Coconut milk
- Palm sugar
- Shaved ice
By added these ingredients in different quantities, as well as other ingredients such as fruit, beans, sweetcorn, glutinous rice, vanilla, tapioca, and in more recent times ingredients such as coffee you can create the wide range of variations of cendol eaten across South East Asia, known in different countries by the following names:
- Thailand: lot chong
- Indonesia: dawet or es cendol
- Myanmar: mont let saung
- Vietnam: chè ba màu or bánh lọt
- Laos: nam waan
- Philippines: halo-halo
Explanations of the origins of cendol are as numerous as the varieties of this dish and the Malaysian people are passionate about their claim to have been the originators. The earliest known reference to the dish is believed to be in a 12th century text from Java. However, what is being referred to in this 12th Century writing is a dish made with coconut milk, palm sugar and the distinctive green worms which were originally made from rice flour flavoured (and turned green) by extract from pandan leaf. The missing part of the dish is the shaved ice.
As anyone who has been to South East Asia knows ice doesn’t form naturally anywhere except for at the top of the region’s very few tall mountains and only in the winter time. Ice simply wasn’t available commonly anywhere until refrigeration in the early 20th Century came to South East Asia. The reason why the Malaysian’s have a firm belief that cendol was created in Malaysia is that ice was used to preserve goods being transported in ships to the busy commercial ports of Melaka and Penang. Cendol was created, so the story goes, with the ice being taken from the arriving ships and left over shavings being added to an older dish of roughly the same ingredients (minus the ice) to create something similar to ice cream which people in South East Asia will have been aware of but were generally unable to procure.
This story may or may not be true, but it’s certainly plausible. However, the problem with Malaysia’s claim to have invented the dish is that merchant ships also carrying ice were travelling to other parts of South East Asia, not only the Malay peninsula, so more than likely people came up the same idea in more than one location at the same time, hence, the wide range of different countries who claim to have come up with the same basic dish.