travel : melaka, malaysia
While I’ve been to Malaysia many times before, this time it wasn’t with my family (rather it was K’s) or in my hometown. It meant, for once, the visit was through the eyes of a tourist, with a bit (okay, quite a bit) of insider knowledge thrown in. Which (yes I’m late to the party on this one) is one of the best ways to travel.
So between visits to K’s relatives and root beer floats at A&W, what did we see? Melaka’s where all the major colonial powers, at one time or another, fought for a slice of the spice route. There are ruins of forts, churches and then there’s Jonker Street, which breaks out into an outdoor eating area on weekends. The city centre is a remarkably well preserved UNESCO site. It’s still a very busy town centre, so an uncanny feeling of the past lingers on.
(Directory at the end of the post.)
Home cooked food
Before jumping headlong into Melaka, I want to show you some home cooked food. K’s grandparents live in the most beautiful, old fashioned house on the outskirts of Melaka. Complete with ducks, dogs and banana trees, the place felt so far away from the modern world. Open eaves replace air con, the kitchen is a huge wet area and the rattan rocking chair is the best spot in the house.
The most memorable meal of our whole trip was here. An uncle treated us to a wonderful lunch of barbeque pork noodles.
Left: Preparing fried mackerel, just in case us kids were still hungry. Right: Fresh egg noodles cooking away. Yum!!
K’s uncle in his element – char siew (bbq pork), pak choy, egg noodles (wrapped in newspaper – what else would it be in Malaysia?).
When we arrived the kitchen was already buzzing. Newspaper wrapped portions of egg noodles were flung into hot water, then tossed in dark soya sauce. Red tinged pork, green leafy vegetables and crispy wantons, fished from a plastic jar, completed the dish. Oh I almost forgot the soup! A big bowl of wantons swimming in a broth – topped with spring onions and fried shallots – to be slurped up with the noodles. (And just in case that wasn’t enough, out came a plate of fried mackerel.)
Really, nothing satisfies like a home cooked meal. Take that Snickers!
Left: Wantons waiting for soup. Right: The finished product, complete with wantons done two ways – boiled and crispy! Okay, I just realised there is a FLY on there.
Anyway back to the beautiful, old house. The house was built by hand and over the years, has had various parts tacked on. The tiled kitchen even has an old meat keeper (it keeps snacks now) and meals are prepped on round fold up tables. It proves lovely food does not need a fancy kitchen, just good intentions and a heart.
Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum
Good taste seems to run in Nyonya blood. They seemed to take on more colonial tastes in their predilection for intricate decor.
Set in a mansion spanning three townhouses, this museum is the best sight in Melaka. Don’t miss this one. It’s a short walk from Jonker Street and without any obvious signage. Don’t be fooled – a quick rap on the door and a kerbaya-clad lady reluctantly (and rather suspiciously) lets visitors in. Once the introduction is semi-scolded (shoes off for the second level and no photos – I clearly disobeyed on the photos), we are free to look around.
For a moment we wondered if this was in fact the museum we were looking for. But once we entered the main hall, oh my, we were definitely in the right place!
Peranakans (known as nyoynas and babas – nyonyas are the ladies, babas the guys) are descendant of Chinese merchants who arrived in the 15th and 16th century. During the various colonial eras of Melaka, some merchant families became fabulously wealthy, decking out their houses with distinct Nyonya aesthetic, a tasteful blend of east and west. Walking through the house, it’s clear Peranakans adopted European tastes as their own. There’s a lot to see in the house – antique English water urns, European typewriters and opulent kerbayas.
Intricate mosaic tiles tickled our feet and when we could, we ran our hands over the luxurious mother of pearl inlaid into what would have been everyday furniture. The house is surprisingly cool, with few windows (an old taxation law had to do with the number of windows) and an open courtyard providing sunlight onto the communal wet area.
Antique tiffin carriers!
The best part of the museum is the outdoor kitchen. Outdoor stoves were fed with twigs and temperature control was a good old fashioned hand fan. The kitchen also displays numerous antique tiffin carriers and priceless sets of Nyonya crockery. Pastel coloured glazes with hints of English influence and made with bone china, the crockery is surprisingly timeless in design. As they are no longer in production, Nyonyaware are collectors’ items. Complete sets of dinnerware are absolutely priceless.
You can buy some Nyonyaware on Jonker St, but you need a good eye for antiques and of course, bargaining. (I was so so tempted to buy just one little, beautiful cup to take home.)
Jonker Street at night.
I’m not sure if Jonker Street counts as a tourist trap but it sure is beautiful, in a messy sort of way. Tiny Chinese shop houses butt against each other in a jumble of red lanterns and old, grimy scrolled gutters. During the daytime, the one lane of traffic battles against pedestrians, but at night, it’s much more peaceful.
On Jonker Street you can find Nyonyaware crockery – real and fake. The plates are oriental in design but the colours and prints are distinct and almost European. Authentic crockery is now very valuable as they are no longer in production. To give you an idea, one Chinese style tea cup sells for 60 AUD.
Between the antique and souvenir stores, there is still very much the semblance of traditional life. The street is crowded with mosques, Hindu and Chinese temples, chicken rice ball shops (see below), a funeral hall (!!) and even a mausoleum.
I’m not sure what this building is but it’s probably the rear of a temple. The white pot holds joss sticks and the kiln burns offerings to the dead.
Traditional life is still strong, even amongst the throngs of tourists and traffic.
Chicken Rice Balls
The best renditions of Melaka’s famous dish can be found within one block of Jonker Street. Generations old, these eateries command long queues upon opening. Of course, where there are famous dishes, there are domineering shop keepers. There was even a shop with an owner who’d give the soup nazi from Seinfeld a run for his money.
So, is this dish a better version of chicken rice, or just a gimmick?
Chicken rice balls, served with (normal) loose rice and poached chicken doused in soy sauce and sesame oil. The chicken was wickedly delicious. The balls, well, balls.
The all important rice balls are made from a mixture of sticky rice and normal rice. Cooked in chicken fat, garlic and poaching liquid, it’s lightly crushed before being rolled into a rather dense ball. The balls are now machine made so there’s not much romance left in the process.
Hoe Kee Hainam Chicken Rice Ball
We tried the chicken rice balls at Hoe Kee on Jonker Street. In all honesty, the chicken was wickedly delicious – silky and firm in a wonderfully tasty sauce – but I’m not a fan of the balls. Too dense and it’s just rice, you know?
Each to their own. But worth a try. I’ve included the three most popular chicken rice ball shops in the directory at the end of the post.
Sun May Hiong’s Pork Satay
Pork satay a bit contradictory – along the lines of a Jewish suckling pig I guess – but anything remotely sacrilegious is usually very good.
Located along a lonely street, Sun May Hiong is extremely well known for its small morsels of pork meticulously grilled over charcoal burners out the front of the shop. (The aroma that wafts down the street is divine.) The secret seems to lie in the skewering. Each stick always includes a morsel of pork fat, resulting in a moist, oily, caramelised satay. It’s fantastic.
Pork satay ready to cook! Notice how each stick has a couple of pieces of fat – this is what makes the satay super more-ish!
It seems the owners took the adage ‘if you’re going to get wet you might as well go swimming’ to heart. Not only is the satay different – the sauce is made with pineapple! It’s strangely sweet, savoury and fibrous and reminded me of that notorious dish sweet and sour pork. The sweetness of the sauce meant it was applied more as an ointment. It was strange, but good.
Pineapple-y satay sauce. And of course, a coconut drink. What else would you drink in Malaysia?
The pork satays were continually delivered to the table (ask for liver and intestine satays if you are an offal lover) until we were bursting. At the end, the sticks were counted and the bill delivered. It ended up to be something like 20 cents a stick!
A’Famosa Fort – in pretty good shape considering it was built in 1511. What’s left of it anyway.
A’Famosa Fort, St Paul’s Hill & Stadthuys
Melaka was once, at one time or another, a British, Portuguese or Dutch colony. Melaka’s forts were built facing inland threats and those that remain are grouped close to Jonker Street. Vising the historical attractions takes only a few hours, leaving a visitor with a good chunk of the day devoted to eating (shopping is not all that great).
The Portuguese-built A’Famosa fort used to be a lot larger. In fact all that is left is the gate house. If not for Sir Stamford Raffles’ (he of Singaporean fame) intervention, there would be nothing left to see. The rest was blown to bits by the British army.
St. Francis Xavier statue on St. Paul’s Hill
Behind A’Famosa is a steep climb up to St. Paul’s Church. The church was also built by the Portuguese and is particularly well known for holding St. Francis Xavier’s remains when it was moved from China to Goa. The grave is open for viewing, as well as intricate tombstones which used to be scattered across the hill side.
That’s St. Francis Xavier’s statue (pictured above) at the front and get this: when the statue was consecrated in 1952, the next day a tree fell on it and off came its right arm. Coincidentally the saint’s right arm was removed from his body in 1614… spooky.
The interior of St. Paul’s.
After the fall of Dutch rule the church deteriorated, but it’s still a beautiful spot, even in its ruined state. It’s easy to see why the colonists picked the hill to build on – it’s the coolest spot in Melaka. Protected from the heat, the cool air provides respite and an opportunity to have a closer look at the ornate tombstones. Even though it is a church no more, within the pock marked stone walls it’s uncannily silent and meditative.
Tombstones line the inside walls of the church.
Touristy markets at Stadthuys
Descending the hill, we arrive at Stadthuys, or the Red Square. It’s an iconic sight of Melaka but that’s all people come for – a picturesque shot of the former Dutch town square. We can hear the square before we see it. Dozens of trishaws gather in the square, complete with boom boxes that squawk music that you can hear blocks away. Blinged out with fake flowers, their sole trade is to take tourists for rides around the historical centre.
They are so gaudy I’m almost tempted to take a ride, but the thought of some poor driver pedalling both K and I was too cruel a thought to entertain!
Stahthuys and Melaka’s trishaws.
Satay Celup at Ban Lee Siang
The calm before the storm.
Combining fondue with satay and you get satay celup. Set in the centre of each table is a bubbling, hot cauldron of satay sauce. They surely recycle the satay sauce from each seating (try not to think about that) but with each reincarnation the sauce gets tastier. Just hope that no one double dips eh?
Trays of goodies on sticks. Fish balls, fish cake, crab sticks, wantons and balls of kang kong (water spinach).
In they go.
Skewers of food are self serviced from fridges holding everything possible that you would want dipped in satay sauce. Every incarnation of fish ball and fish cake – sliced, stuffed or studded – are waiting to be dunked into the peanut sauce.
The best skewers were the Malaysian delicacies like otak otak (spicy fish paste) wrapped in banana leaves (that goes into the sauce too, we lost a few in the process), balls of woven kangkong (water spinach) and cooked pork intestines. My all time favourite are the blood cockles, still dripping their ferric juices but once in the sauce, are indistinguishable morsels.
Studded fish balls, wantons, otak otak, fish paste stuffed tofu, chicken, prawns, stuffed okra, the list goes on.
(By the way, if you eat blood cockles half raw make sure you’ve had hepatitis shots. They aren’t called ‘blood’ cockles for nothing.)
The skewers all go in at once, almost overflowing the cauldron. We quickly learn not to put everything in at once, as it takes what seems like ages to boil.
But we have all night and there’s bread and cucumber to mop up sauce and keep hunger at bay. The sauce is actually what everyone comes for. It’s sweet, spicy and runny enough to slap on to everything. Occasionally the waiter comes around and stirs the ‘sludge’ at the bottom to distribute the peanuts around the pot. This is a bit like playing lotto because whatever gets lost down there is scooped up and flung onto some unfortunate’s (usually the skinniest) person’s plate…
106 sticks later!
A Nyonya Dinner at Restoran Anak Nyonya
The best pineapple cookies.
We were lucky enough to be invited for dinner at a Anak Nyonya right on Jonker Street (with an unexpected, lovely surprise at the end). The interior of the restaurant was eye catching – simple marble tables. dark wooden stools and god-knows-how-old shutters are a nostalgic echo of the past.
Before the actual food came, a box of pineapple cookies were plonked down in front of us. A strange snack for an entree… though as I picked up the cookie, it became apparent why it arrived when it did. Indeed these cookies can arrive anytime they like!
Crumbly, buttery, misshapen and stuffed with a just-sweet-enough pineapple jam, they were the best pineapple cookies I’ve ever had in my life. And they were bought a couple doors down the street. (We promptly visited the bakery after dinner. Incidentally they hold the world record for biggest pineapple cookie in the world.)
Left: Nyonya fried chicken, inchikiban. Right: Pineapple assam fish.
The food came slowly but surely. The chef is so particular about the food (an infamously adorable trait amongst Nyonya cooks) she cooks every dish herself. The restaurant was fairly packed so this is no mean feat. We could see why people were happy to wait. The food was honest and authentic.
Nyonya food is a distinctive mix of Chinese elements with Malaysian ingredients. There are lots of examples of fusion in Malaysia but Nyonya is especially unique for its layering of flavours and simplicity within each dish. It’s not hard to learn, but difficult to perfect.
Inchikiban (fried chicken) is always a crowd pleaser. Ayam pongteh (chicken braised in candlenuts and spices) was tender and savoury with a good-for-you feel about it. Thick, generous slices of mackerel were slathered in a spicy, fragrant chilli paste before being fried crispy in plenty of oil – seriously good on a bed of plain white rice. Kang kong with belachan (shrimp chilli paste) was pungent, salty and still crisp from a flash in a very hot pan. The assam fish was served head and all with chunks of pineapple to cut through the acidic heat.
I particularly liked the cincalok omelette. Cincalok is made from tiny, whole shrimp which are fermented with rice. The sauce is bright pink, and usually you can see the black dots of shrimp eyes floating around. It has a salty, funky, umami taste. No eyes visible in this dish though.
Cincalok (fermented shrimp sauce) omelette.
Dessert was a refreshing Nyonya style chendol, a sweet cold soup on green noodles, red beans, coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar).
At the end of the dinner, two durians (!!), rambutans and a box of cempedak appeared. (Cempe-what?!)
Durian and rambutans.
Though durian will always be the king of fruit, cempedak (‘chem-pe-dak’) is the fruit I am constantly on the prowl for. It looks like jackfruit though it’s much sweeter, almost like honey. It’s pulpy, stringy, fibrous and has a tropically funky scent to it. Unlike jackfruit the whole interior of the fruit can be eaten.
It’s quite hard to find, so I was very touched to hear it had been bought in because K’s family heard we (more like me) loved the stuff. It’s hard not to say that food is indeed an expression of love and generosity.
Literally the smell of fresh durians will knock your socks off! Malaysian durians are the most pungent and with that they are also the most delicious. Thai and Vietnamese durians have nothing on the Malaysian ones.
Durian smells horrid, somewhere between cat poo, sugar and socks. I’ll try my best to describe the taste for the innocents among us. You know how people say truffle is like mushrooms? Well what truffle is to mushrooms, durian is to custard. It’s like eating stinky custard in eerily soft flesh. Okay it doesn’t sound so delicious anymore, but trust me, it is.
Next installment: Bangkok!
Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum
50 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 75200 Melaka
T: +606 283 1273
Open daily from 10.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and 2.00 p.m. and 4.30 p.m.
Is also known as aka Jalan Hang Jebat, on the northern side of Melaka River.
Hoe Kee Hainam Chicken Rice Ball,
4, 6, 8 Jalan Hang Jebat, 75200, Melaka
T: +606 2834751
Famosa Chicken Rice Ball Restaurant
28-30 Jalan Hang Kasturi, Off Jonker Street, 75200 Melaka
T: +606 2860121
Chung Wah Chicken Rice Ball
18, Jalan Hang Jebat, 75200 Melaka
T: +606 2834751
Sun May Hiong (Pork Satay)
Note: Check weird opening hours before going!
50/50A, Jalan Kota Laksamana 1/1, Taman Kota Laksamana, 75200 Melaka
T: +606 281 7281
11am – 7pm (8pm on Saturdays), closes alternate Tuesdays
A’Famosa Fort, St Paul’s Hill & Stadthuys
These are grouped together – start at A’Famosa (behind the megamall, and then head up the hill to St. Paul’s. Down the other side of the hill is Stadthuys.
Restoran Ban Lee Siang (Satay Celup)
Jalan Ong Kim Wee 75300 Melaka
T: +606 284 1935
Restoran Anak Nyonya
88, Jalan Tokong (also Jonker Street), 75200 Malaka
T : +606 288 2626
LW Nyonya Pineapple Tarts
90, Jalan Tokong, 75200 Melaka
As a guideline, hotels in Malaysia are of low standard. A four star hotel should be a three star and three star should be two and so on. Book a nice hotel and preferably one with a top 10 rating on Tripadvisor. For the culture vultures, I’d recommend the Majestic (gorgeous!) or Casa del Rio. For shoppers and eaters, the Equatorial. However, almost everything is within an easy 10 minutes walking distance. The hotel we stayed in shall remain unnamed, to say the least it was not a pleasant experience.
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