Hidden Gems in Melaka

I find myself writing this entry midway on my journey between KL and Singapore, on my way to see friends (and just as importantly food).

As it turned out, my week was free from other distractions so I saw it as a great opportunity to put in a couple of stops and continue my edible odyssey around Malaysia.

Interestingly, the 2 stops I’ve included could barely be more different.

Where I am now, Johor Bahru, is a large sprawling city. Most buildings seem to be commercial in some nature, the economy surely benefiting from its position on the other side of the river from Singapore island. Despite its name literally meaning New Johor, it’s history actually dates back to the mid-19th century. Its history seems to be contradicted, however, by the predominance of late 20th century architecture as well as the name.

In contrast my previous stop, Melaka (AKA Malacca), seems to be frozen in time. The area around its centre, Jonker Walk, is a UNESCO Heritage Site. A quaint mix of historical shop-fronts steeped in successive waves of Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture. It was the capital of the historically dominant Melaka Sultanate, the epicentre of classical Malay culture, and the first major hub of the vastly lucrative spice trade.

It’s ancient and beautiful, however from a foodie perspective herein lies the issue. It’s somewhat of a tourist trap.

I don't think it would feel as such to the majority of visitors, it is still gorgeous and interesting, but it’s just that the flavours have been thinned and the prices inflated.

Talk to any self-respecting Melakan foodie and they’ll tell you it’s nigh on impossible to get a good meal around here. I think this is perhaps a little hyperbolic, however it’s certainly pretty difficult without putting your hand in your pocket.

I had to try a little harder... but just so you don’t have to, here are a few of my hidden foodie gems in Melaka.

Will start with breakfast and, as seems to often be the case with my blogs, a contradiction to the rules. This small stall is actually just a couple of roads away from Jonker walk, in a beautiful old kopitiam (coffee shop).

Usually a kopitiam would have a few different stalls, selling a variety of dishes, however this one is just the single stall. Run by an incredibly smiley and hospitable lady who, along with her small team, dishes out some of the tastiest noodles in town.

The star dish. No, the only dish… Is Mee Hun Kueh AKA hand torn noodles.

Little scraps of satisfying wheat noodle, which are served in a delicate broth made from chicken, dried anchovies, dried mushrooms and beansprouts (for sweetness).

The chopstick skills required for these chewy little morsels is perhaps a little expert, however she was very hospitable and offered a fork!

Of course, I eschewed the offer… despite perhaps being marginally below an expert technical sufficiency (I have after all practiced…. A LOT!)

Power Breakfast: Mee Hun Kueh, Sambal & Kopi

Perhaps another contradiction as this place has a couple of branches in KL, however the OG location is found tucked away under a tree a couple of miles out of Melaka.

They serve up top-notch Nyonya Laksa. A coconut milk and prawn broth, infused with lemongrass, chilli, shallots, garlic and galangal. Super fragrant from torch ginger and daun kesam (laksa leaf) herbs. Thick rice noodles, juicy prawns, tofu puffs, fish-balls and cucumber finish off the festival of flavours, smells and textures.

All laksa is great. However, with a bowl of this you may argue that they are not all equal…

On top of this they serve classic Nyonya sides such as pie tee, crispy top-hat, and popiah, rice pancakes, stuffed with radish, salads and fried shallots. Both delicious with sharp chilli sauce.

A great breakfast/lunch after a gentle 3km cycle ride.

Pretty in Pink: Nyonya Laksa & Out of Focus Pie Tee

On the other side of the river from the old town this restaurant serves up some top quality Asam Pedas.

Literally translating as Spicy Tamarind, Asam Pedas is popular across Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia. Unavoidably i t will invoke an argument between any Indonesian and Malaysian as to who invented the dish. However, in my experience this loses steam as everyone gets hungry!

Copious amounts of sour tamarind and red chilli. thickened with tomato, aubergine and okra makes a sauce that is a lot of everything, spicy, sour, sweet and savoury.

Classically this is served over fish. Any fish can be used, but most commonly oily fish like mackerel. Another common variant is using fish heads as these are the most flavourful and impart additional richness from all the gelatine.

I actually went for Ikan Pari (skate/stingray) which I love for its meatiness, hassle-free eating (there is only 1 bone) and comparative cheapness!

Served with white rice, a salted egg for richness, and even more chilli sambal, this was a really fantastic lunch.

As mentioned numerous times before, Nyonya is the culture formed by Chinese traders marrying Malay locals over the years. It's incredibly rich and Melaka is one of the key centres of this culture (the others being Penang and Singapore). So, it’s only natural that it features heavily in this list.

If you’re looking for something a little more special this restaurant is the place!

Serving up great Nyonya classics such as chicken pongteh (an aromatic stew with potatoes), sek bak (braised pork in soy) and kerabu (exciting salads). As well as Malay classics with a Nyonya twist like rendang (the Nyonya twist is the inclusion of belacan shrimp paste).

I went for spicy sambal pork and wing-bean belacan. A lot of chilli but both delicious!

This week I tried a few different places, however this was hands down the best. The flavours were great, it was great value, and it had a real home-cooked feel to it whereas others tended to be quite oily.

  • BONUS – Cendol @ Various

This is a bonus as it definitely breaks the rules as it’s both famous and great versions are readily available along Jonker walk. My favourites being Jonker 88 and Christina’s Cendol.

Pronounced Chen-Doll. In it's most simple form this is a bowl of shaved ice and short green pandan noodles, smothered in coconut milk and sugar syrup.

Many westerners, especially my dad, are somewhat put off by the addition of red beans and sweetcorn. It seems bizarre to us that these would be included in a dessert, as opposed to chilli con carne or roast chicken, however Malaysians find it equally bizarre that we wouldn’t!

In all honesty, while I can get my head around fermented shrimp paste, stinky petai beans and durian (ish), this is where my limit is reached!

However, it’s really easy to ask for them to be removed and what is left is a super refreshing and light dessert. Perfect for a hot day.

The real star of the show, especially in Melaka is the use of a rich palm sugar syrup from the local speciality Gula Melaka.

This is a really lovely product. Made from palm sap that is boiled down and set into blocks of deep brown sugar. It’s sweet but not overly sickly. The flavour is a little acidic but also smoky from being boiled over an open fire (if it’s the good stuff!)

It’s commonly used in savoury sauces to balance out the flavours, however is best eaten in pure form doused over a dessert like cendol.

Well done Melaka!

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