Introducing Melaka and a look at Nyonya cuisine
Melaka (Malacca) is located 148 km south east of Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur and is a city-state rich with history. As you’re about to see, the cuisine in Melaka proudly exhibits its multicultural heritage – from its origins as a Malay fishing village to the influences of European (Portuguese, Dutch & British) colonisation.
This historical city centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 and I’m told that on weekends, the streets of Melaka are heavily packed with tourists. So congested in fact, that locals tend to avoid going out during these days.
Nyonya cuisine refers to cuisine of the Peranakan or Straits Chinese community. Peranakans are descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Melaka, Indonesia and Singapore, inter-marrying with local Malays. Nyonya is the term for the ladies and Baba for the gentlemen. The cuisine blends a taste of Chinese with a dash of Malay herbs and Indian spices.
Note however that Penang Nyonya cuisine differs to Melaka Nyonya cuisine. Although both feature a liberal use of coconut milk and chillies, Penang Nyonyas prefer a sweet-sour or tangy taste with nuances of Thai. On the other hand, the Nyonyas in Melaka enhance their dishes with the aroma of fragrant leaves, flowers and herbs.
During our two hour bus ride into Melaka from Kuala Lumpur, at the recommendation of our tour guide, we stop by D’Perigi Enterprise for our first taste of Melaka.
D’Perigi is a local favourite for breakfast. We try the Mee Rebus which literally means ‘boiled noodles’. It turns out to be anything but bland. Yellow egg noodles are served with a curry flavoured gravy-like sauce, green chillies, fried tofu, Chinese celery, fried shallots and a hard boiled egg.
We also get a chance to sample dishes such as mee soup (top-right) and rojak (bottom-right) before making our way to the Majestic Hotel.
The Majestic Hotel is a classic beauty, featuring colourful wooden shutters, ornate cornices, intricate Peranakan tiles and is simply elegant from any angle.
I am super thrilled I’ve been traveling with the wide angle lens because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to capture the level of magnificence at this accommodation:
Here’s the lobby (top-left), pool (top-right) and library (bottom-right) –
And there were even snacks at every table top including these (bottom-left) iced gem biscuits which totally bring me back to my childhood days!
The hotel room is as charming as it is luxurious –
Next on the itinerary is a scheduled lunch at the hotel dining room with celebrity chef, Florence Tan (aka Queen of Nyonya cuisine). You may remember her from Poh’s Kitchen.
Florence is an amazing character – she is so vivacious and passionate. Within minutes of meeting, she tells us she has brought with her some scrumptious pineapple tarts, a Nyonya specialty. These are quickly taken out of a box and arranged on a plate as she proudly shows –
She goes on to tell us about the special qualities of Nyonya cuisine – how it is a hybrid cuisine – a blend of all religions and spices. The Chinese influence brought ingredients such as soy sauce and mushrooms, the Indian influence brought spices like cloves and cardamom, and with the British influence, came butter cake and pineapple tarts.
The Nyonya way of cooking involves meticulous processes that are well refined and are passed down from mother to daughter.
A quote which really stuck with me was when she said “Colour is to the eyes as spices is to tongue“.
The first dish the hotel kitchen serves are these cute morsels of sauteed vegetables with preserved soy bean paste in a crisp top hat. They’re called Kuih Pie Tee.
Florence comments that traditionally, the vegetables would be more finely cut and the ingredients wouldn’t be served spilling out of it. I learn that she later passes on this feedback to the kitchen staff who eagerly nod and take notes.
Over the next couple of days, as Florence shows us her hometown, it becomes apparent that she is truly well loved by Malaysians. Her presence meant people would pause whatever they were doing to listen and learn. Some would go out of their way to shake her hand.
The next dish is Sup ayam masak O, a comforting soup of ginger, garlic, chicken and potato.
Main dishes include udang kuah nenas (top-left), prawns cooked in a pineapple gravy, chap chye (top-right), ayam pongteh (bottom-left) which is braised chicken with mushrooms and potatoes and preserved soy bean paste, and chinclok omelette (bottom-right).
Chap means ten in Hokkien so chap chye means ten vegetables. It is essentially a mixed vegetable stew.
Chinclok are fermented small shrimps (krill), which are salty and have a distinctive taste. They’re toned down in the omelette but I still wasn’t much of a fan of it.
The beef rendang, is a hearty stew of tender beef flakes with chilli, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric and coconut milk. The finely sliced garnish shows remarkable precision and dedication.
Dessert is bubur cha cha, a traditional Nyonya delicacy. It is a sweet caramel soup featuring taro, sweet potato, tapioca jelly and sago pearls, flavoured with coconut milk and palm sugar.
Another popular sweet we come across is dodol, a sticky toffee-like candy made of coconut milk, rice flour and palm sugar. Other popular variations include ginger, durian and pandan.
For afternoon tea, we pull up at Perhentian Kuih Kampung which sells a selection of over 30 types of kueh, homemade by nearby locals.
Kueh are bite-sized snacks, some savoury and some sweet.
Here, they are 0.40RM each which equates to just about 13 cents in Australia. Some of these are steamed and others are deep-fried, all delicious in its own way.
Our plate to share includes kuih keria (sweet potato doughnut), kuih lapis Sagu (9 layer kueh), pulut panggang (grilled glutinuous rice kueh) and more.
We also share these crisp banana fritters.
And head back to the hotel in style, in trishaws –
Nowhere have I ever seen trishaws, so colourfully decorated.
Later in the evening, dinner is served at Amy Nyonya Heritage Cuisine, a restaurant run by Amy Koh, cousin to Florence Tan. Amy is actually a former dental nurse who only set up the restaurant upon retirement, out of the desire to leave behind a legacy of true genuine Nyonya cooking. The restaurant serves Baba Nyonya dishes based on recipes handed down through the generations.
But first, a display of traditional Nyonya dancing, as arranged by Florence and Amy –
The pie tee are noticeably different from the hotel kitchen’s version. They’re as crisp but the yam bean filling is definitely more delicate in presentation and taste.
The hee peow soup (top-left) is traditionally only prepared for special occasions. Hee peow is dried fish maw, a highly regarded delicacy.
A dish completely new to me is the ayam buah keluak (top-right), made of chicken and Indonesian black nuts. The black nuts have a tough shell but break within it, and you’ll be rewarded with a pleasantly robust flesh. The gravy is tasty too, featuring the must-have belacan (shrimp paste), lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, garlic, chillies, shallots and slightly thickened with candlenuts.
More familiar is the deep-fried squid (bottom-left) and again, the chap chye (bottom-right), a stir-fried combination of vegetables.
Undoubtedly, the most popular dish at the table is the gerang asam fish curry, a dish that is both spicy and tangy.
Florence and Amy sure know how to put on a banquet as more dishes keep rolling out.
Below are – sambal jantung pisang (top-left) a banana blossom salad with spicy coconut cream dressing, taufu asam manis (bottom-left) fried tofu with a sweet & sour sauce and udang goreng asam (bottom-right) succulent prawns sauteed in a thick tamarind paste.
And because no dinner is complete without dessert, Florence and Amy proudly showcases their handmade kueh and bubur cha cha –
The assortment of kueh include kuih seri muka, glutinous rice coloured with blue pea flowers (clitoria ternatea) and topped with pandan custard; onde onde, pandan glutinous rice dumplings filled with palm sugar, and kuih rempah udang, blue pea flower coloured glutinous rice filled with a savoury mixture of dried shrimps, lemongrass, chillies, shredded coconut, garlic and galangal.
Expecting it all to be sweet, the savoury one came as a surprise! I absolutely adore the other two.
For Amy, there are no shortcuts in her Nyonya kitchen so we learn that even the tapioca jellies are handmade, as they used to be.
Ah, the old-world charms of Melaka. I’m loving it.
715-T Jalan Puteri Hang Li Poh, 75100 Melaka, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1 6641 7884
Open 7am – 3pm (closed on Sunday)
188 Jalan Bunga Raya, 75100 Melaka, Malaysia
Phone: +60 3 2783 1000
Perhentian Kuih Kampong
Ujong Pasir, Melaka, Malaysia
Kueh available from 4pm
Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine
75, Jalan Melaka Raya 24, Taman Melaka Raya, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1 6286 8819
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