A day trip to Melaka, Malaysia

Melaka (or Malacca) is a UNESCO heritage site situated an easy 2-hour drive south of Kuala Lumpur on the North-South Expressway. Since its founding in the 14th century by a Sumatran prince, Melaka became a very important port for centuries by the colonising Portuguese, Dutch and then the British. Port of Malacca and its sheltered bay provided a welcomed stopping point for the trade route between China and India. All these cultures, plus the arrival of the Chinese from British colonies created an intruiging melting pot in Melaka. One of these is the unique Peranakan (Straits Chinese) culture.

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There are several toll roads between KL and Melaka, and I think we paid around RM$65 for the return trip. If you don’t have a Touch ‘n Go smartcard, the queue for the cash lines starts getting annoying. Luckily, BL’s uncle lent us his for the trip. A aspect of Expressway in West Malaysia are the overhead bridge restaurants (known as Jejantas) along the route. These are full service rest stops straddling the highway with restrooms, a surprising number of restaurants and food outlets, souvenir shops and even playgrounds.

With its unique heritage, Melaka is famous for its food. We immediately made a beeline for Jonker Street, and to eat the tourist trap chicken rice ball at Chop Chung Wah. Only in Melaka, they have made soggy chicken rice into golf-sized balls and have queues running down the street to eat it. Luckily, the chicken was excellent, flavoursome and tender, the home-made chilli sauce was exceptional and the lime drink was refreshing.

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Gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar) is essential to sweeten Malaysian desserts and kuih, and is used in all manner of cooking and beverages. Gula Melaka comes from the concentrated sap from the inflorescence of coconut trees. Here in the home of gula Melaka, the gula is intensely brown, rich, complex in flavour and used liberally. The best way to experience gula Melaka is in ais kacang and cendol. There are many dessert places on Jonker Street, and they are all good. We hit three different places on the day, and only wished we had the time (and stomach) to try them all. My favourite was the durian cendol, with mashed up durian flesh on top of the cendol.

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If you are a fan of kuih (seriously, who isn’t), you are in for a serious treat at Baba Charlie Nyonya Cake. Baba Charlie operates out a traditional house in old suburb down a very narrow lane. You walk right into the kitchen where the kuih are being steamed and packed, the showroom is through the internal door. There were over 20 types of steamed kuih, jars of baked kuih and also delicacies such as otak-otak (spicy fish paste), dodol (chewy coconut candy) and kaya (coconut jam). The pie tee is good, but you have to eat it rightaway or the pastry case becomes soggy. My favourite were the ondeh-ondeh and kuih koci. I bought some baked kuih for Chinese New Year; the kuih sepit (waffle) and mini spicy pork floss rolls was great but the kuih bangkit (tapioca cookies) was disappointing.

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Chinese New Year goodies in red capped jars

We broke up our eating with a very informative guided tour of the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum which is housed in a beautifully preserved opulent home of the Chans, one of the foremost Baba Nyonya family in Melaka. The house itself combines three shophouses and have Portuguese, Dutch and British Colonial influences. The tour guide provides plenty of interesting anecdotes such as how the Nyonya girls check out visitors to the house without being seen, how the ‘security’ system of the house works and how Nyonya women communicate their wealth through the subtle use of jewellery. Tours are on the hour, RM16 for adults, RM11 for children.

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Our dinner was at Sri Nyonya Peranakan restaurant at Hotel Equatorial. We were recommended by the staff at the museum to eat at Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine, but alas, it was fully booked. Sri Nyonya is beautifully set up to look like the inside of a traditional wooden house, and the tables have batik tablecloths, enamel water mugs and woven table mats. The menu is all Peranakan, and very extensive, so we decided to go with the Set Menu RM242+ for 5-6 people and let the restaurant make all the decision. The dishes included bendi goreng (lady’s fingers in sambal), ayam pongteh (chicken in sweat bean paste with Chinese mushroom and potato), sup itik tim (duck soup with preserved vegetables and sour plum), ikan goreng cili garam (fried fish fillet with spicy chili paste), taufoo seri nyonya (egg bean curd with bean paste and minced chicken) and udang goreng asam (prawns sautéed with tamarind). We finished this with our 4th ais kacang of the day. The food was flavoursome, though only ayam pongteh was new to me.

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Melaka is a great place to visit on an empty stomach; there is much to taste and see. One day is definitely not enough, and make sure you visit during the week as the crowds are less and queues are shorter.

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