I promise that one day I will write a post about our time in Malaysia that is not focused on food. Today, however, is not that day.
I loved the city of Melaka and want to tell you all about it, but the truth is that I keep coming back to the food. It was so good, that I just can’t seem to talk about anything else. We had always heard that competing UNESCO rival George Town up in Penang province was the country’s food capital, so you can imagine our delight when Melaka unexpectedly provided us with the perfect setting for an impeccable and authentic Malaysian food bender. No disrespect to George Town (we ate really well there, too!), but in Melaka, we came for the historic buildings and stayed for the food… if that’s not a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is!
So, let’s cut to the chase. Here’s what we tucked into during our stay:
Night Market Nibblies
We weren’t all that impressed with the famous Jonker St weekend night market: despite the pomp going into the market, we found it was definitely aimed at the tourist crowd as most of the stalls focused on flogging cheap souvenirs and other useless crap. A disappointment to be sure, but since we rarely visit markets in Asia with an eye on shopping we simply honed in on the intermittent food stands we found peppered about. As we browsed the underwhelming consumer goods, we snacked on popiah (the Malay twist on a Vietnamese summer roll… think of a healthier, non-deep fried spring roll) and tried out a mystery dessert that involved pandan-infused rice rolled in shredded coconut and an oozing sugar center. We learned that the filling consisted of palm sugar called Gula Jawa, which is dark and rich, and just slightly bitter, a bit like the flavor of the caramelized topping on a crème brulée. The aggressive flavors definitely perplexed our palates a bit—in between bites we kept furrowing our brows saying things like, “This is so weird! I think I like it… Maybe?”
The success of our visit to the Wednesday night market held a 30-minute walk outside of the historic district was far less ambiguous. You can tell right away that this market is geared towards the locals as rather than the keychains and rubber chickens (seriously… also: why?!?) of Jonker Street, the stalls here are overflowing with clothing, watches, illegal dvds, fresh produce, and tons of local treats notably absent from Jonker Street. And of course, everything was a fraction of the price seen at the weekend market! To that end, we rolled up our sleeves and tried:
- Radish cake—A slightly gelatinous block of shredded daikon and flour that is wok fried and squirted with some soy sauce… it smelled better than it tasted, as it doesn’t taste like much of anything at all. (Given the relatively bland components, this is not entirely surprising.)
- Murtabak—Filled with mutton and egg, the egg flavors really came through while the meat could have used a little more seasoning. The curry sauce, on the other hand, was absolutely phenomenal and chockablock with flavor. Only disappointment here was that this dish is not very portable and is nearly impossible to eat on the go if you’re planning to use the aforementioned curry sauce.
- Fried chicken—The meat was juicy and moist, the skin & batter so crisp and crunchy we risked scratching the roofs of our mouths as we tore into this like wild dogs!
- Tarts galore!—We found a stand selling a variety of pastries and availed ourselves a Portuguese egg tart, one filled with almond, and one with a pineapple filling. The egg tart was fantastically flaky, the almond was disappointingly dry, and the pineapple was the unanticipated star as the filling was delicious in its own right but the tart also featured a secret chocolate bottom. I would have eaten half a dozen of these just on my own, so it was tough to limit myself to just half of one shared tart.
- Sketchy burgers—Ok, I admit it: this was an adventurous eating fail; Tony and I just couldn’t get on board with the suspicious-looking “hamburgers” that were flying off the grill of one stand. Unsettled by their pale hue (apparently they are 40% flour which might explain their color—or lack thereof—as well as how they could afford to sell them for 2MYR apiece), we left the chowing down to Dale & Franca. They may be vegetarians now, but we’ll never forget the intense groans of pleasure they emitted when chowing down on these dubious sliders.
The local market was crazy crowded but it was also one of the best markets we have ever visited in Asia, in large part because it has clearly not been adapted to appeal to tourists. The food was generally quite tasty, dirt cheap, and best of all, the locals we encountered were really happy and impressed that we had made the effort to visit, so we were met with a lot of enthusiastic smiles and felt very welcome.
Melaka has a large Chinese population, so there are plenty of restaurants offering really great Chinese food. We think we’re pretty great at uncovering cheap local establishments, but Dale & Franca just might have us beat. On a lunch excursion, they took us to a vegetarian establishment not unlike the ones we frequented in Tainan. We came near the end of the lunch service so our choices of what was on offer at the hot bar were a bit limited (and sometimes a bit lukewarm rather than piping hot), but from what was on offer, everything we tried was really satisfying and clearly prepared with love. I won’t lie though, the real reason I’d go back again and again is that Tony & I ate for 8.50MYR… for the two of us! That’s less than $3US for the privilege to stuff ourselves silly! And since all the dishes were meat-free, we felt absolutely no guilt at doing so.
That said, our favorite Chinese meal while in town (and possibly just one of our favorite meals, period) was a Melaka original, chicken rice balls. Unbeknownst to us, the place we ate at, Kedai Kopi Chung Hwa, is one of the city’s most famous establishments; we chose it simply because most businesses are closed on Tuesdays but this place had a line out the door so we joined the queue. Best decision ever.
Chung Hwa is my favorite kind of restaurant because they only offer one thing and have just dedicated themselves to doing it incredibly well. Here the menu only advertises poached chicken and golf-ball sized portions of rice. That’s it. So your only decision is not what you will be ordering, but how much of it! In our case, our ordering can be summarized by the following interaction:
Waitress: How many people eating?
Waitress: 18MYR ($6US) total. OK?
Now, I know I didn’t have a lot of love for Singapore Chicken Rice, a dish that is ostensibly the exact same thing, so the odds were pretty high I wouldn’t be blown away by this one either. After all, the only obvious difference here is that someone had taken the time to shape the rice into spheres. And yet this was AWESOME. The chicken was perfectly juicy and succulent and had definitely been infused with different flavors than the Singapore version of the dish: this chicken had a real emphasis on earthy flavors with a masterful (but not overly aggressive) inclusion of garlic and sesame. The dipping sauce was bursting with punchy citrus notes that were immediately apparent but then gradually faded so that you were left with a tingling burn from the chilies and then a faint wafting of garlic. The flavor just persisted on and on, the sauce echoing on your tongue long after your last bite, which just makes you want to go back for another taste; truly addictive!
Also, even if the rice balls seemed a bit gimmicky, they were actually really genius. Held together with chicken fat, they were infused with a real richness and were fantastically creamy. They were so good, we actually ordered an extra serving. It was hard to go back to plain old boiled rice after them, let me tell you!
While in Malaysia, we uncovered one of Singapore’s darkest secrets: many of the dishes that Singaporeans vocally proclaim as their own, are really Malaysian in origin! And not to discount how fantastic the food that we had in Singapore was, but the versions of the dishes we had in Melaka totally blew them out of the water.
Take the incredible char kway teow that we found at a random, nondescript little restaurant in an alley snaking off of Jonker St. It had many of the same components as the version we tried in Singapore, but with one notable addition: crispy nuggets of pork crackling! Not only did these add a nice hit of texture to the dish, but these pops of flavor were culinary gold. I cleaned the plate making sure I had devoured every last nugget.
At the same restaurant, we also ordered our first bowl of Malaysian laksa, a rich soup featuring a broth laced with curry. As in Singapore, the iteration served in Melaka is known as “baba laksa” and has the important addition of coconut cream to the broth, which mellows out the fiery flavors and adds a bit of sweetness, as well. After eating this bowl of soup, I quickly re-dubbed Melaka as “Melaksa” because it was soooo good.
When I mentioned my love for this fragrant soup on Facebook, I received some horrified comments in response. Many of the naysayers claimed that laksa was revoltingly fishy and couldn’t understand how I could find the dish appealing. I believe the contention here lies in the fact that there are TWO types of laksa in Malaysia: baba and assam. The latter is more like a hot & sour soup and features a fish broth with a strong tamarind component but no coconut. We tried assam laksa and agreed that although it was fine, we definitely prefer the coconut curry flavors of a baba laksa.
Neither Tony nor I are particularly fond of strong fish flavors, so I think that a huge reason why we liked the assam laksa as much as we did is because we tried it at Dessert 88. Simply put, if you are ever in Melaka and only have time for one restaurant, make it this one. It’s one of the most famous restaurants in Melaka—when we tried to visit on a Sunday, there were at least 20 people in line—but for good reason. Despite the name, it serves up far more than dessert (as evidenced by the fact we had a fish-based soup there…) and the food truly is out of this world. Along with our assam laksa, we also had a plate of chicken rendang. Rendang is essentially a thick, slightly dry, curry—featuring ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chili, it’s an extremely fragrant one at that. The chicken was perfectly prepared, but the accompaniments were equally tasty from the cooling cucumber and onion (so fresh!), the funky chili-shrimp paste, the roasted peanuts and dried anchovies (giving you a hint of crunch and a burst of salt), everything was a delight. There were so many flavors happening in this dish but they all worked in harmony.
I’m just going to put this out there and say it might be the best chicken rendang in Malaysia, because we never had another plate so good anywhere else we tried. One night we met up with a local CouchSurfer named Chester for dinner where we had laksa and rendang again. Unfortunately, neither of the dishes were as good as they had been at Dessert 88; the laksa did feature some pretty fantastic fish balls, but otherwise the food was quite forgettable (I can’t even remember the name of the restaurant… it’s probably better that way). Suffice to say, the conversation and company were the real highlights of that evening!
One type of food that is specific to Malaysia and the Melaka particularly excels at is Nyonya cuisine (also known as Peranakan cuisine). Nyonyas are essentially straits-born Chinese—the offspring of Chinese traders who married local Malay women. They have a cuisine that is all their own, and it is absolutely delicious.
Based off the recommendation of a local, we headed to Nancy’s Kitchen with the assurance that it was the place to try traditional Nyonya food. With Dale & Franca in tow, we ordered a veritable feast: chicken with black nut (the nut tasted a bit like Asian black bean), chicken with candlenut, braised pork and tofu in a fermented bean paste, chapchay (a traditional veggie dish, which included lotus blossom), mee goreng (fried noodles), and green chilies that had been stuffed with papaya and then pickled.
The food definitely lived up to the hype. Though rich and bright, it had a very different flavor profile than is standard in Chinese food and we could definitely taste the influences of Malaysian food. A bit like the incredible aboriginal food we tried in Hualien, this is definitely one of those cuisines that you have to try for yourself to really understand because there aren’t any easy comparisons to be made.
Although hawker centers are definitely more of a Singapore thing, you do find them in Malaysia as well. Our last night in the city, the owner of the little guesthouse we were staying at invited to take us to the city’s biggest food stall center for dinner. Obviously we said yes!
If we thought that the Wednesday night market was a real local experience, this took things to the next level: Tony was the only white person in the building and more than a few tables went silent with disbelief as we walked past. Ken and his wife urged us to look around and pick out some things we would like to try, but they also went ahead and ordered some staples that they felt we needed to taste. The number of options on offer was truly overwhelming, so we were both glad they took charge, not least because everything they picked (even the things we likely wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves) was spectacular. As a group, we dug into:
- A pot of ginger chicken poached in wine – the broth was so floral and just insanely good… forget chicken soup, this is what will cure whatever ails ya!
- Snakehead fish soup – this is actually the soup Ken & his wife turn to when either of them is feeling under the weather as it is believed to have curative properties. Much to our delight, although snakehead fish is a bottom-feeder like catfish, the meat was very mild… and was even more delicious once dipped in the accompanying herbal sauce, which was actually reminiscent of a tomatillo salsa!
- Satay – Hands down, the best we have ever had! The meat was perfectly seasoned (you could really taste the cumin and turmeric), the portions were fantastic, and the sauce was a perfect balance of nutty, sweet, and just a twinge of heat.
- Crispy Roast Pork & Sausage - Not much more to say here. The pork belly was well rendered and delightfully crunchy, and the Chinese sausage had that great porky, sweet flavor to it that characterizes lap cheong.
- Fried bird – Ken’s wife was really insistent that we order one of these. We were initially terrified because although we were game, we thought we might have to eat the bird whole, bones and all. Thankfully, when it came time to eat, we discovered this was not the case, and were able to just nibble the flesh. We’re pretty sure that this was a quail (not a sparrow as had been suggested to us and was part of our fears we’d be eating it whole) and it was a very tasty one at that as it had been liberally seasoned with 5-spice powder before frying.
We ended the evening with a drinks at Seafarers, a fairly overpriced tourist bar, but with an unbeatable view of the city’s eponymous Straits of Melaka and a wonderful sea breeze to boot. Stuffed to the gills, we were lulled into a soporific state. The perfect end to a perfect meal.
We spent a lot of time in Malaysia and sampled a wide variety of cities, both on and off the tourist trail. It’s never easy to choose a favorite city in a country as lovely as Malaysia, so I don’t lightly bestow Melaka with that glory. Penang may have Asia’s best street food (highly debatable), but for the best food of any kind in Malaysia, we vote for Melaka. After seeing the photo evidence are you really going to argue with us?
Now it’s your turn: Seriously, do you want to argue with us? Where do you think Malaysia’s best food is to be found? Have you ever been to Melaka? If so, what was your favorite dish? If not, which of these dishes would you most want to try?