A taste of Melaka

What we say: 3.5 stars

The Malaysian city of Melaka has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exciting history, but we think it also deserves recognition for its amazing food. Over the 500 years since this port city was founded, people from China, India, the Middle East and Europe have travelled here to do business and many stayed, contributing their favourite recipes to Melaka's food culture. Few places can rival Melaka for diversity in local food, so between museum visits and antiques shopping plan to enjoy meals of noodles, curries, tandoori and these Melakan specialties.

Melaka is known as a home of Peranakan cuisine, a fusion of flavours and cooking techniques that evolved when Chinese merchants married Malay and Indian women. The Peranakans were the elite of their era and their dishes are known for complicated techniques and long lists of ingredients -- expect a generous use of ginger, candlenut, lemongrass, chili, laksa leaves and cincalok, a condiment made from tiny fermented shrimp. The signature dish ayam buah keluak may seem like a simple chicken stew, but the black keluak nuts that give it its rich flavour require days of preparation to become edible. Other must-trys are ikit tim (duck soup with herbs), udang lemak nenas (prawns cooked with pineapple curry) and kueh pie tee (crispy little dough cups stuffed with shredded veggies, egg and Chinese sausage). Unlike the Malays who abstain from pork for religious reasons, many Peranakans do amazing things with pork like melt-in-your-mouth babi pongteh (pork belly braised with salty soy bean paste).

kueh pie tee: Nonya throwdowns.
kueh pie tee: Nonya throwdowns.

Since Peranakan cuisine is often far too labour intensive for even locals to cook at home, Melaka has a wide selection of Peranakan restaurants. For complete immersion into world of the Peranakans, make a reservation at Restoran Peranakan which is set in a restored mansion decorated with Peranakan antiques and art. If you just care about the food, try homey Nancy's Kitchen or Kochik Kitchen which are just as delicious and nearly half the price. Most Peranakan dishes are served in portions meant for sharing, so it's worth going in a group so you can order lots and sample everything.

Chicken rice balls. It is what it is.
Chicken rice balls. It is what it is.

For more fusion eats, take a short trip outside of the city to the Portuguese Village to try Eurasian cuisine. It's exactly what it sounds like -- east meets west -- and includes some delicious concoctions like baked fish, butter crab and spicy beef stew. Devil's curry (curry debal) is traditionally a Christmas Day Boxing Day dish made with leftovers from Christmas among Melaka's Portuguese descendants, but it's on the menu every night at Restoran de Lisbon. As fishing survives as one of the occupations here, at night you'll find stalls selling barbecued seafood, though the seafood may be coming from further afield than the immediate waters.

Ayam buah keluak. ALso known as I'd like a serving right now please.
Ayam buah keluak. ALso known as I'd like a serving right now please.

Melaka has also given its own twist to the hawker centre staples of chicken rice and satay. Rather than the usual bowl of rice, Melakan chicken rice shops serve poached chicken with a side of golfball-sized rice balls. They still taste like boring old rice (until you add the chilli sauce), but we suppose they're more fun to eat. Both of Melaka's best-known chicken rice ball restaurants can be found along Jonker Street -- tourists flock to Famosa Chicken Rice Ball or, for a cheaper version, join the locals queuing for lunch outside Hoe Kee Chicken Rice. Everyone knows that the best part of eating satay is the peanut sauce, so in Melaka they actually cook the skewers in a boiling vat of the stuff. Known as "satay celup", it makes a fun night out since you cook the skewers of meat, seafood and veggies right at your table. Try it at Capitol Satay where a crowd of hungry people can always be found waiting for them to open their doors at 17:00.

Gula Melaka: A sweet sweet.
Gula Melaka: A sweet sweet.

We hope you've saved room for dessert, because Melaka has some signature sweet treats. You'll find the dessert chendol which is made with gula melaka" (Melaka sugar) all over Malaysia but the best is often found in Melaka. This namesake product is made from liquid collected from the cut stem of an unopened coconut bud the sap of palm trees boiled until it thickens and develops a burnt-caramel taste. Enjoy it in a bowl with shaved ice, coconut milk, green noodles and fruit at the Clocktower Chendol stall opposite Stadthuys for 2 ringgit or at Jonker 88 Dessert Café for 3 ringgit -- durian optional!

One Melakan tart please.
One Melakan tart please.

The centuries-long European influence in Melaka also means that residents have an appreciation for baked goods. Keep an eye out for small bakeries in the Chinatown area like LW Nyonya specialising in pineapple tarts -- bite-size pastries filled with sweetened pineapple puree. A box of Melaka pineapple tarts sells for 10-15 ringgit and makes a sweet souvenir, but we won't blame you if they get eaten up before your flight home.

Capitol Satay: 41 Lorong Bukit China, T: (06) 283 5508
Clocktower Chendol: Opposite Dutch Square
Famosa Chicken Rice Ball: 28/30 Jalan Hang Kasturi, T: (06) 286 0121
Hoe Kee Chicken Rice: 4/6/8 Jalan Hang Jebat, T: (06) 283 4751
Jonker 88 Dessert Cafe: 88 Jalan Hang Jebat, T: (19) 397 5665
Kocik Kitchen: 100 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok, T: (12) 377 4732 / (12) 330 7918
LW Nyonya Pineapple Tart House: 41 Jalan Hang Kasturi, T: (06) 281 1626
Nancy's Kitchen: 7 Jalan Hang Lekir, T: T: (06) 283 6099
Restoran de Lisbon: Portuguese Village
Restoran Peranakan: 107 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, T: (06) 284 5001

About the author
Tanya Procyshyn is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer. With a passion for unusual destinations, she has camped alongside Komodo dragons and shook hands with soldiers in North Korea. She blogs at www.idreamofdurian.com.
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