Tired and hungry, with very little time left before making for the airport and our flight back to Australia, my friend and I decided reluctantly to plump for dinner at a shiny new restaurant, smack bang in the middle of Melaka’s tourist district. We would usually have little hope of a good meal in such a dire situation; with a greasy burger or watery curry at the airport the only other option, we chose the lesser evil – an untested potential tourist-trap two doors down from an Irish Bar. We pushed the heavy, silent door ajar, felt the rush of impossibly cool air-conditioned air, and took our chances.
I am not a food tourist, and I hate the term “foodie,” but wherever I go, I do like to experience whatever a country does well. And Malaysia does its food very, very well. Not in that pretentious, haute-cuisine, Michelin-star-celebrity-chef way, but in a plastic-tables-and-chairs, cheap-bottled-beers and use-your-fingers kind of way. Melaka is a port city that once stood beside Venice and Alexandria among the great trading cities of its time, with a native Malay fishing culture that rubbed shoulders for centuries with urban Indian and Chinese trading societies and a European colonial ruling class. When I last visited in 2004, I found a relaxed and unhurried place, on the eastern shore of a down-at-heel riverfront and only a small number of Malay cultural attractions and European colonial museums. The food, however, was worth coming back for.
Cut to 2016 and I, like most Australians who have been periodically passing through the nearby Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, had been completely oblivious to the transformation Melaka has undergone. In 2008, the city was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, igniting a series of gentrification projects that have transformed the city. Varying in scope and levels of success (the large-scale coastal land reclamation and a curious 80m high spinning tower are amusing at best,) the finest of these is the restoration of the Chinese district centred on Heeren Street (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) and Jonker Walk (Jalan Hang Jebat,) on the west side of the Melaka River. Before Singapore and Penang joined the fray, Melaka was at the centre of Southeast Asian trade, the capital of a Sultanate that spanned and gave its name to what is still the busiest shipping lane the world: the Straits of Malacca.
The first Chinese arrived there in the 1400s with the famed explorer Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and many more migrated throughout the period of European rule from the 1500s to mid last century, mostly from the southern coastal provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. As in Singapore and Penang, the migrants mixed with the local Malays, maintaining many of their Chinese customs, and a Straits Chinese Peranakan culture all its own was born. The area around Heeren Street and Jonker Walk is dominated by the Chinese townhouses and shops, with their columns adorned with auspicious characters and the Chinese signs of ancient clan associations, many of which have been restored to an exceptional standard and turned into hotels and museums. To avoid a tax on street frontage, the homes were built narrow and long, with living rooms at the front, kitchens at the back and sunny open courtyards surrounding water wells midway through the house, and it’s in these spaces where visitors can now stay in boutique hotels. The Baba & Nyonya Museum on Heeren Street is a private museum run by the descendants of the original Peranakan owners (from the Xiamen district of Tong’an) that offers an outstanding introduction to the lavish trappings and private lives of the wealthy Straits Chinese. Two streets over, the oldest temple in Malaysia is the Cheng Hoon Teng Buddhist Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and a centre of Melaka’s South Fujianese Hokkien community since the 17th century. A few doors down from the temple, Kampung Kling Mosque is a beautifully understated place of worship, combining elements of European architecture, Chinese tiling and a very open and airy Malayan use of space. In recent years mainland Chinese tourists have found Melaka, and the rejuvenated Jonker Walk explodes to life on Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a night market that sees Chinese tour groups souvenir hunting, wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with European backpackers shuffling past the art shops and street food carts. Despite the touristic feel, much of the food on offer, like Hainanese chicken rice balls, a dessert called durian puffs, the red bean sweet drink called cendol, and the curious combination of satay sticks and Chinese steamboat known as satay celup, is all genuinely Melakan, and good.
Across the river, just outside the spruced-up UNESCO heritage area, is Little India. There, off the path beaten by the tour groups, modest open air restaurants can be found serving some of the best roti canai, murtabak and south Indian banana leaf cuisine you’ll ever have. Sometimes the signs are fading or falling down, the restaurants aren’t licensed, and none of them has free wifi, but if a place is busy, it is well worth finding a table, sitting down and ordering what everyone else is having. The Malay fishing village life is a little way out of the city, so a modest cab ride down the coast finds rows of seaside fish restaurants under market roofs like Seri Muara Alai, where locals crowd tables piled with fresh barbecued seafood (ikan bakar) and ice cold glasses of teh tarik, to the competing sounds of the adhan from nearby mosques.
And so my friend and I found ourselves reluctantly ordering at a brand new restaurant in the tourist district, with the uninspiring title of Nyonya Kitchen, just to avoid an airport meal. But it turns out we had nothing to fear: the Nyonya chicken curry and ayam rendang were as good as any food we had eaten in Melaka. The coconut and turmeric flavours were distinctive, the chicken pulled right off the bone and the lime juice was fresh and tart. So I realised that even the touristic restaurants in Melaka serve tastier food than any I can get back in Australia. It’s only 1.5hrs drive from Kuala Lumpur’s airport and, myself not being much of a shopper, Melaka’s history, the quality of its food, and the ease of getting around all makes me wonder if I’d bother staying in Kuala Lumpur again.