Culinary quest in Malaysia

Last updated 05:00 24/08/2011
MAKE WAY: The queen of Nyonya cuisine, Florence Tan, centre, is revered  in Melaka's markets.

MAKE WAY: The queen of Nyonya cuisine, Florence Tan, centre, is revered in Melaka's markets.

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Once a sleepy backwater, Melaka (formerly Malacca) is today one of Malaysia's premier tourist destinations, attracting nearly nine million visitors a year, most of them domestic.

Over the weekend, motorists drive in from other parts of Malaysia and across the causeway from Singapore – and in such droves that locals now avoid moving about town on a Saturday or Sunday.

Not having visited Melaka for more than a decade, I felt slight trepidation as our minibus proceeded through the newly developed landscape, crammed with new housing estates. Our Malaccan-born guide poignantly pointed out the one that used to be his playing fields as a boy.

But then the bus turned a corner and there we suddenly were, back in the old town, a time warp from 1930s British Malaya, still miraculously intact.

A maze of around 20 blocks, the old town is laid out street upon street with terraces of two-storied colonial shop-houses, most with verandas over the footpath.

It's still a fully functioning community, even down to the electronics store, the pharmacy (still with its banks of wooden drawers containing traditional Chinese medicines) and the tiny kitchenware shop, chaotically crammed with obscure gadgets, such as the iron needed to make the cases for "top hats" (pie tee – filled with shredded turnips and prawns).

Aromas of laksa and stir-fried noodles waft from cafes and despite official clampdowns, a few food hawkers still ply their trade out on the street, serving up plates of steamed cockles and fresh noodles down obscure alleyways.

In this quarter you get a real feel for Melaka as it has always been – a cosmopolitan port, commandeered first by the Portuguese, then successively the Dutch, the British and the Japanese.

As our minibus passed one of very few demolition sites in the old town, our guide told us the developers were about to be prosecuted for cutting down two historic-listed trees, where upon my optimism for the future of the precinct took an upturn.

Then we pulled into our accommodation, the Hotel Majestic, and things got even better.

Now fully restored but still with its original joinery and tiled floors intact, the hotel was built as a colonial-style mansion for a rubber baron in 1929. Converted into a hotel in 1955, it served as the venue for preliminary talks regarding Malaya's inde-pendence.

In the 1970s the Majestic became a backpackers, and lately has been sensitively expanded, the new rooms given the classic Raffles treatment, with dark polished wood, marbled floors, overhead fans, planters, chairs and chaise lounges.

Oh and they have a fabulous little infinity lap pool, and the food is not bad either.

At least I thought so, when first we sat down to an eight-course lunch put on in honour of our party of Australian food writers.

The cuisine here is the sophisticated Chinese-Malay fusion of the Peranakan or Straits Chinese, descendants of Chinese traders who came to Melaka and married Malay women in the late 15th and 16th century. The men are known as babas, the women as nyonyas – hence "Nyonya cuisine".

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Despite the gradual, ongoing dilution of the Perakanans into mainstream Chinese culture through intermarriage, their cuisine has enjoyed a major renaissance in modern Malaysia.

In the old days, Nyonya cuisine was only ever enjoyed privately in Peranakan homes, but thanks to tourism, the Mansion restaurant at the Hotel Majestic is just one of around 20 Nyonya restaurants which now exist in Melaka.

We enjoyed a series of Nyonya specialties such as Ayam Pongteh (braised chicken, mushroom and potato with preserved bean paste) and an omelette of cincalok, containing this locally made, somewhat challenging preserve of fermented krill in exactly the right proportion (ie, a smidgen). But we were not counting on the fact that these chefs were cooking Nyonya food for the queen of the genre, Florence Tan, our host and guest of honour.

A former home economist, Florence was born into a Peranakan family and later became a chef in five-star hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, presented TV cook-shows and wrote a delightful cookbook, recipes from which she brought to life during a cooking demonstration on the balcony of the hotel.

Such is Florence's mana that when we went shopping for ingredients at Melaka's central market, the crowd parted before us and stall holders greeted her with outstretched hands.

So when she pronounced judgement on the "top hats" at the Majestic, the chefs humbly accepted her criticism and gathered around with notepads after lunch to see how they could do better.

"If I gave this to my parents, it would fail," Florence, holding up a strand of the julienned turnip filling from the top hat, said. "You cannot have it this thick. You come to my cousin Amy's restaurant and see how it should look. She's a stickler – you really do get Nyonya food as it used to taste 500 years ago."

And so, naturally we did – that very evening.

Florence wasn't wrong. First up we were served top hats as the amuse bouche, and sure enough, the strands of julienned turnip were sufficiently needle-like to pass muster with Paul Bocuse himself.

Beyond the pretty presentation, the flavours of this meal were a revelation, especially the Gerang Asam (mackerel and okra simmered in fiery chilli-red tamarind broth) and Ayam Buah Keluak a spicy stew of chicken and Indonesian black nuts. These huge nuts had a hole cut into their tough shells, from which you scooped a surprisingly large quantity of soft, firm flesh, with its own delicious and robust flavour.

Between courses, a Pernakan dance troupe put on a performance, at the end of which I was dragged onto the dance floor and shown to be a bumbling clown – the classic tourist's nightmare.

David Burton visited Malaysia under the Malaysia Kitchen Programme, as a guest of Matrade (Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation).


Eating there: All the main strands of Malaysian cuisine – Malay, Indian and Chinese – are well represented in Melaka, but the star attractions are the restaurants specialising in the local Nyonya cuisine. My own pick (and Rick Stein's!) is Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine at 75, Jalan Melaka Raya 24, Taman Melaka Raya.

Sightseeing there: The central square, containing Christ Church (built 1753), the Stadhuys (constructed 1650 as the Dutch Governor's residence) the English clocktower and the English fountain, is today a Unesco World Heritage site.

But two lesser known attractions are equally worthwhile: Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum 48&50, JalanTun Tan Cheng Lock, 75200 Melaka (in the old town), is better than a museum.

This perfectly preserved early trader's mansion, built around a central courtyard, is positively dripping with its original chattels – Chinese lacquer and gold gilt, Venetian mirrors, patterned English tiling work and bone china dinner sets.

There's a full room of antique Chinese silk embroideries and everywhere a riot of over-the-top carved teak furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Cheng HoonTeng Temple, 25 JalanTo'kong 75200 Melaka (in the old town) – – is a living Taoist-Buddhist temple that dates from 1645.

Its richly decorated details include rooflines of myriad porcelain creatures. Staying there: The Majestic Melaka (hotel), 188 JalanBunga Raya, 75100 Melaka.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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