In Melaka with Florence Tan: wet market tour, a cooking class and street food feasting
Our group is up bright and early with the promise of a visit to Melaka Sentral pasar besar (Melaka’s local produce market) with Florence Tan, whom we had the pleasure of dining with, the night before.
Melaka Sentral pasar besar is a double storey indoor wet market. The ground floor is a timeless scene of chirpy locals selling freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, alongside a handful of fishmongers and long aisles of dried foods stalls.
Here, this woman is selling tightly packaged banana leaf and brown paper pyramids of nasi lemak bungkus, a convenient breakfast for many. This is simply coconut rice with ikan bilis (anchovies), cucumber slices, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg and sambal.
Seafood on offer include stingrays, squid, shrimps, cuttlefish and various species of fishes including sharks.
We’ll be cooking up some Nyonya delicacies in the afternoon so Florence buys some of these prawns for later use. She says to look for prawns with glistening shells and heads that are intact and pointing in the right direction. And when choosing fish, look for bright eyes, pink gills and flesh that bounces back.
We then work our way into the slippery aisles of fresh produce. There’s an abundance of choice. We spot snake beans, galangal, turmeric root, baby bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, watercress, eggplants, cabbages, taro, chokos, ridge gourds, lemons, limes and chillies.
I love all the vibrant colours and seductive aromas.
In the below image, you’ll see bunches of torch ginger buds. This is commonly used in Nyonya cooking for its delicate fragrance. In its raw state, the bud is finely sliced and added to vegetable salads such as kerabu or rojak, and in its full bloom, the flower is added to soups and gravies.
One of my favourite sightings at the market would have to be this spice paste stall which blends modern day convenience with the traditions of grinding your own rempah. The Malay word rempah describes a spice paste consisting of ingredients such as chillies, shallots, dried shrimps, lemongrass and various herbs and spices, that is pounded together in a mortar and pestle, then fried slowly in oil until intensely fragrant, forming the basis of many Nyonya dishes.
At this stall, various ingredients are individually pounded and combined at your request.
Florence also shows us the Melaka version of belacan (shrimp paste) – sometimes referred to as Malaysian cheese! Interestingly, I learn that belacan is sold in the block form in Penang and in a round disc in Melaka.
In the dried foods section of the markets, we see anchovies, dried fishes, dried squid, packaged dodol (a sticky toffee-like candy as seen in my previous Malaysia post), bottled cincalok (fermented krill), a huge variety of different crisps and crackers, and more.
The box of biscuits Florence is holding in the next photo are called kueh kapit or love letters. These dainty biscuits are popular during Chinese New Year. They’re made of coconut milk, egg, spices and flour and are cooked in a clamp mould over a charcoal grill. I bought the mould the very next day so will hopefully get a chance to try replicate this at home some time soon!
And of course we don’t leave without a quick feed. Upstairs to the markets is a humble food court with just the bare essentials. We sample these flaky and moreish curry puffs and get to devour some popiah once again. There are also some apam berkuah, sweet spongey pancakes made of tapioca flour, glutinous rice flour, rice flour, coconut milk and coloured with blue pea flowers, and served with a coconut and palm sugar sauce.
This is what the blue pea flower looks like:
It is locally known in Malaysia as bunga telang and as you’ve already seen, gives a beautiful colour to kuih cakes.
Back at the Majestic Hotel, Florence autographs her cookbook Recipes from the Nyonya Kitchen for us, while an outdoor kitchen is being set up for our cooking class with herself and Adam Liaw.
We ambitiously learn how to cook gerang asam (spicy and sour fish curry), ayam pongteh (chicken stew with preserved soy bean paste), kuih pie tee (top hats filled with yam beans and other vegetables), sambal jantung (spicy banana blossom salad).
I pick up a few tips including:
- When using lemongrass, start chopping from the root and when the purple ring ends, that is when the flavour ends
- There are always 8 ingredients in all Nyonya mother sauces
- It is possible to test the oil temperature for deep-frying using the handle of a wooden spoon; the oil is ready when bubbles begin to appear around the tip of the handle. It is 155°C – 160°C when there are small bubbles and 180°C+ when there are bigger bubbles
This is Adam and Florence making the ayam pongteh:
The kuih pie tee recipe can easily be adapted (sweetened) to make kuih loyang, which are deliciously addictive honeycomb-looking cookies. I bought one of these moulds after Florence’s cooking demonstration, and have my eye on Billy’s recipe!
This is Florence showing us how to shake out the kuih loyang:
She’s a fabulous teacher because in no time, I’ve learned how to make my own kuih pie tee:
The finished results made a sumptuous lunch -
The banana blossom salad tastes so fresh. It has a wonderful spicy tangyness and I am in absolute awe of the impossibly thin threads of kaffir lime leaves that are mingled within.
After shopping in the sticky humid heat, some of us work up an appetite and begin our street food feasting.
You’ve all heard of Hainanese chicken rice, but did you know that in Melaka, the rice is served as rice balls instead of in a bowl? Some believe that this was first done to let the rice retain its warmth but others claim that it came about because the rice balls made it easier for labourers who were working the fields to transport rice from home.
We intended on eating the chicken rice balls at renowned Chung Hwa Restaurant but it was closed so we end up at Famosa Chicken Rice Ball (also on Jonker Street). I personally think the rice balls are a bit dull in texture and lack the comforting fragrance of the normal version. Nonetheless, I now have Melaka’s chicken rice balls ticked off my to-do list.
Keen to sample more food, we stumble across Jonker Street Hawker Centre, which despite its name, is a few streets off Jonker Street.
Jonker Street Hawker Centre features a small collection of carts, each with its own specialty. I love that everything just costs a few measly dollars.
Chicken satay sticks are freshly grilled over hot charcoal upon ordering. The stall owner patiently watches the heat, fanning the charcoal when necessary. He brushes them with lemongrass stalks which imparts a delicate flavour.
The meat is tender and beautifully charred, complemented well with crisp cucumbers, the raw hotness of onion pieces and a rich peanut sauce. Melaka also has its own variation of satay which is called satay celup. It is essentially a mix between Chinese hot pot and Malaysian satay… We don’t get time to try satay celup but I’m pretty content with these.
We also order the bak kut teh (bottom image, top-right), oyster omelette (bottom image, bottom-left and bottom-right) and the laksa lemak (bottom image, top-left), a rich spicy coconut gravy noodle soup with fried tofu, slivers of fish cake, cockles, bean sprouts and a tangle of vermicelli and Hokkien egg noodles.
The oyster omelette is cooked in a large wok over a fire drum. I really enjoy the starchy bits mixed with the egg, oysters and chilli sauce but it somehow lacks the oomph that typically makes this dish so desirable.
Bak kut teh translates from Hokkien to ‘meat bone tea’ and is exactly that. An aromatic broth with various bits of offal, pork and vegies. We savour this with a side of fried lettuce served with fried shallots and oyster sauce, and steamed rice to soak up all the tasty broth.
And here is evidence that we completely smashed this feast:
Melaka Sentral pasar besar
Pasar Besar Melaka, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia
Famosa Chicken Rice Balls
28 – 30 Jalan Hang Kasturi, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia
Open daily 9am – 9pm (10pm on Fridays & Saturdays)
Jonker Street Hawker Centre
Jalan Kota Laksamana, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia
JENIUS attended the Malaysia Kitchen Media Famil as a media guest of MATRADE (Malaysian External Trade & Development Corporation) and Tourism Malaysia, with thanks to Ogilvy Public Relations