As promised in the earlier post, we will be embarking on our very exciting Malaysia Food, Culture and Heritage Trail and what better place to begin than the historic city of Melaka. So jump into the bus with me and let us vroom down south.
Melaka also known as Malacca is the namesake capital of the state of Melaka which lies to the South West of Kuala Lumpur (KL) and its claim to fame lies in its rich heritage.
This is a city which is steeped in the history of its various colonizers over hundreds of years and bears well maintained testimony of their earlier presence, leading to its being rewarded with the well deserved UNESCO world heritage tag.
The convenient location of this port was like an open invitation that caused it to be accessed by the Chinese, Portugese, Dutch, Japanese and British, who stamped permanent signs of their presence in the architecture, mixed races, cuisine etc.
The colonization was also the reason why monarchy was abolished and unlike most of the other Malaysian states, Melaka does not have a Sultan but has a Governor instead.
Melaka city being a bare 145 km from KL and 130 km from Putrajaya, is a must see destination lovers of culture and heritage and of course for the melting pot of … the contents of their pots of course 😀
A little glimpse of Melaka –
The strategic location of Melaka in the southern region of the Malay peninsula and within the geographical safety of the Straits of Malacca, was what drew explorers from lands far and near and this land became the gateway for traders and merchants who discovered its potential.
This was the entry point via which Arab traders initially sailed in for their stash of spices which they in turn sold at the rates of gold to European countries. It was said that whoever controlled Melaka, would hold the throat of Venice and eventually the Europeans after tiring of paying heavy prices for the coveted spices, decided to foray on their own and thus began the chain of colonization.
Speaking of throats, we came to conquer Melaka too but via our palates and stomachs and the amount of food that went down our throats, was a testimony to our victory 😀
Melaka culture and cuisine is strongly built up by the Pernanakan community. Pernanakan literally meaning descendants, refers to the the people who were born of marriages between the traders who visited Melaka and the local women. The mixed race that was the outcome of such unions between the foreigners and locals, gave rise to new sections of society and they now form the ethnic communities of certain regions like Melaka, Penang etc.
Initially taking birth (or giving birth) with the Chinese settlers but in due course with the arrival of merchants from other lands, there were eventually also Peranakans who descended from marriages between the local women with Indians, Arabs and Europeans.
So apart from what are known as the Chinese peranakans, there are the Chitty with Indian origins and the Jawi from the middle east and so on. Each peranakan community has its distinct features but the Chinese being the largest in population, it is their cuisine and culture that is usually referred to when one speaks of peranakan.
The Chinese peranakans are also referred to as Baba Nyona where Baba stands for the male and Nyona for the lady. Their cuisine is famed for its use of coconut, tamarind, glutinous rice, pandan leaf etc.
Our adventure led us most happily to sample some of their signature items which included their famous cakes and snacks as well as their popular dishes at lunch.
So let me pause this history lesson (interesting though it may be) and let me show you the delicious secrets that their kitchens hold.
Baba Charlie Nyona Cake (Kuih) –
Our sweet beginning was at Baba Charlie Nyona cake.
This is Melaka’s most famous of ‘cakeries’ specializing since 1988 in the traditional Nyonya Kuih as they call it. From initially selling their products at pop up stalls in night markets they now have progressed to their own production unit where they make the kuihs, as well as a cafe where customers can have a sit down meal.
The main kitchen is at 72, Jalan Tengkera Lorong Pantai 2C, 75200 Melaka and the cafe is 5 minutes away at 631, Jalan Siantan Taman Siantan Seksyen 1, 75200 Melaka.
Traditional family recipes find their way to the menu and the place is always bustling with eager diners who just cannot wait to sample the delightful and colorful fare.
We were truly privileged to have exclusive time at the kitchen and witness the making of some of the kuihs. It was fascinating to see that just a few main ingredients of coconut milk, glutinous rice paste and Gula melaka (palm sugar) could create umpteen combinations and give rise to several unique varieties of kuihs.
We were told that the nearly 8 hour process began the previous night with making the rice dough and grating huge blocks of palm jaggery. It was also heartening to note that to a large extent, only natural flavors and coloring were used, like pandan leaf extract, the very popular blue pea flower and other natural ingredients.
We watched captivated as an elderly lady grated chunks of jaggery untiringly in that stifling heat. We also watched the making of the ondeh ondeh, a round ball like kuih that was dropped in boiling water and then tossed in coconut gratings.
The store also has an inner section where the shelves are stocked with the packaged confections for sale and framed pictures of the family look down from the walls on their customers.
For the convenience of the people and especially for newcomers like us, there are pictorial charts on the wall labelling the various types of cakes.
Baba Charlie also commercially caters to many hotels and restaurants and hence the urgency to complete the orders by early morning.
After this lesson in kuih making, we were kuih’te hungry and were taken to their nearby cafe where an entire spread was laid out for us to feed our cameras and us too of course.
There were both sweet and savory items, with a shrimp filled one that was obviously my favorite (for all those who know about my prawn fascination). There was also the Apam Bekuah, one that looked like an exotic Idli daubed with blue pea stains and was to be eaten along with a banana sauce (like we use chutney).
We sampled the ondeh ondeh, rempah udang, kochi hitam, apam balik durian, pulut tekan, apam bekua, 2 kinds of mixed loyang and then chased it down with chilled, refreshing Tai bak.
A menu with the various names and matching visuals were also put up on the wall for easy selection. Your assignment is to match the names with the pictures 😀
Hot cups of Chinese tea were advised to be drunk, to aid the kuihs down on their journey through our gullets and also to ensure that digestion would take place soon to make way for the remaining feast that awaited us at lunch time !!!
Nyona 63 –
Located deep within the confines of one of the buildings on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Nyona 63 is another quaint restaurant that hides behind the facade of a shop selling traditional costumes, gorgeous enamel wear lunch boxes and other bric a brac.
Named after its address No. 63, this place is famed for its authentic Nyona food. Multi hued Chinese fans line the walls that flank the path within the building and colorful umbrellas hang from the ceiling.
One walks past large urns/vases to enter the dining area that is aglow in a haze of crimson and big round tables are laid out with crockery and cutlery that silently await their guests.
We were given an interesting introduction to the various spices and ingredients used in Nyona cuisine by the exuberant and theatrical Chef Keong who made the session fascinating with his anecdotes and explanations.
I learnt about candle nuts, torch ginger flowers, buah keluak and of course many of my own familiar Indian condiments and spices like coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder, curry powder, chilli powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves etc.
Candle nuts called Buah Keras have a hard shell (keras meaning hard) and they have to be cracked open to get at the oil rich nut within. Toxic when raw, these are used to thicken gravies.
Torch ginger flowers are used in certain dishes for their piquant flavor and its fragrance graced our Masak Lemak Nenas prawn curry (Pineapple prawn curry) at our meal.
Buah keluak was something totally new to me and I learnt that this exotic nut is to be used after soaking for a week to leach out the toxicity. After this it is cracked open and the insides are scooped out, cleaned and then seasoned with spices, refilled into the shell and then braised with either chicken or pork. This is a much sought after and unique dish in peranakan cuisine.
The food was a feast indeed with all their choice items making their way to our table.
We began with Vegetarian spring rolls, Ngo Hiong (5 Spice Meat Rolls), Steamed okra with dried chilli paste, Nyonya Chap Chai (mixed vegetables), Masak Lemak Nenas Prawn, Pongteh chicken and pork, Kangkung balacan, Kurau Chili Garam and for dessert we welcomed the chilled Cendol (pronounced chendol).
Hot flasks dispensing Blue pea tea did the rounds of the tables. Of course in that heat, we begged for ice and converted the beverage into iced pea tea 😀
The chilled cendol was a refreshing end to our meal with the gula melaka (palm sugar) sweetened pandan stained rice jelly noodles served atop a bowl filled with crushed ice.
Jonker street –
After lunch we really wanted to sleep 😀 but we were taken on a jaunt down Jonker street which hopefully helped us ‘melt’ some calories.
This quaint little stretch is flanked by charming antique stores and is a short 5 minute walk that eventually leads to the bridge across the Melaka river and the Red square on the other side. Many of the shops seemed to be closed though, probably because it was afternoon.
There is also a heritage museum showcasing exhibits right from the colonial era but I did not have the time to visit it.
Dutch square/Red Square –
As I said, Melaka is very special because it bears testimony to the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Japanese and the British who colonized it in turn, right from 1511 AD to 1957 AD.
The Dutch square or Red square still maintains a few monuments from the Dutch era and the scene is complete with the river Melaka flowing by, a bridge spanning it and of course a windmill which adds the real Dutch touch 😀
The buildings have been painted red so that they stand out and apart from the touristy photo point that says I Love Melaka, the surroundings consist of a fountain, a clock tower, the Stadhuys, a church and an art gallery.
The Queen Victoria’s fountain was built by the British in 1901 and stands in the center of the square. The Stadhuys building was constructed in 1650 and was the statehouse of the Dutch government. It housed the governor’s residence, the offices, a jail, a bakery and even a well. Currently it is a museum featuring historical exhibits from the times of the Malacca Sultanate, the Portuguese, Dutch and the British times.
Christ church is an 18th century Anglican church and interestingly it is still functioning as a protestant church and it has the orginal altar and the beams intact.
Manually operated 3 wheeler rickshaws (trishaws) decked up in Hello Kitty and similar cartoon decor, are available for joy rides around the square and a spiderman frolics around, offering tourists his sticky presence for photo ops, to upload on the world wide Web … but of course. Make sure you have a few ringgits to spare for the upkeep of the web 😀
After our brief exploration of the Dutch Square, we set out from Melaka towards the town of Muar in the neighboring state of Johor.
Read on for the tale of the trail.
Getting to Melaka –
Melaka has its own International airport but with a limited number of flights.
The major airport is the International airport at Kuala Lumpur and is 145 km away. Private vehicles, cabs or buses are the means of transport between these 2 cities.
More information about Tourism Malaysia is available at –
Please Note – I visited Malaysia and embarked on the food trail, on the invitation of the Tourism Malaysia, which sponsored my flights, stay and related activities and I thank them for the same. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Apr 15th-20th, 2019