We had a brilliant time in Malaysia this past week. Our trip kicked off in Kuala Lumpur where we were visiting Justin’s sister and family. It was especially awesome to see Rosie bond with her cousins :-) We then drove to Malacca, a UNESCO heritage site with a fascinating multicultural history.
We stayed at the classic Majestic Hotel Malacca, a 1920s Straits Settlement mansion which has been beautifully restored, preserving details like the original porcelain tile flooring and teakwood fittings.
Malacca was a strategically significant sea port for the spice trade from as far back as the 1400s. Over the last 500 years it has been successively occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, all before gaining independence in 1957. These imperial powers, along with local Malays and traders from China, Arabia and India each left their mark on Malacca, and today you can see the city's rich multicultural legacy in its architecture, religious diversity and fascinating cuisine.
We were also amazed to hear that there is actually a settlement in Malacca today, of Portuguese colonial descendants who continue to maintain their own distinct language and culture. So fascinating!
The old town is wonderful to explore on foot. We strolled past The Royal Press, one of the world's oldest surviving letterpress companies, and Wah Aik, a third generation cobbler whose great-grandfather made shoes for bound feet (before the practice became illegal in 1911). Another must-see is the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, once home to a prestigious Peranakan family, which really showcases the fusion of Chinese, Malay and Colonial influences.
Malacca is colorful and eclectic, so it's no surprise that we also discovered a really talented Melaka-born artist, Charles Cham. His gallery, the Orangutan House, is well worth a visit.
One evening we were walking past the Poh One Kong Temple, built in 1781, which represents both Taoism and Buddhism. Inside were two men in devout prayer. It was incredible that we were welcomed inside while they were worshipping like this.
The old city's atmospheric streets really came alive at night, and the river (which flanks the main square) is lined with a ramshackle string of laid-back bars. It was a lot of fun to kick back with a gin and tonic and watch the boats cruise past.
But more than anything, the real highlight for us was the food - specifically the Nyonya food. I first came across Nyonya cuisine in a cooking class in Penang and I hadn't heard of it since… until this trip to Malacca.
I have no idea how this cuisine has remained such a secret (and not been exported outside of Malaysia) because it’s really distinctive and absolutely delicious. Some of the dishes are really quite sweet, but then you also get all sorts of sour notes in the curries, along with rich combinations of spices like cloves and cinnamon.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, many Chinese traders immigrated to Malacca. Nyonya cuisine emerged as a fusion of Chinese cooking and Malay and Indonesian spices.
WHERE & WHAT TO EAT
- Our favorite dining experience was at Aunty Lee's Restaurant. It's a little further afield from the main tourist area, and all the better for it. They serve utterly authentic Nyonya home cooking with cold beer and a fun atmosphere.
- Chung Wah Chicken is a bit of an institution. t's very no frills and there is only one thing on the menu, but the Hainanese chicken and rice balls they serve are damn good!
- The Straits Affair is a really interesting Peranakan Patisserie (known as a Kueh-kery) and you must try the Pang Su Sie (savory) and Apom Berkuah (sweet).
- Nancy’s Kitchen also serves traditional Nyonya cuisine. They're also famous for their bite-sized buttery pineapple cakes, a Melaka speciality.
- Geographer’s Cafe is a good spot on the Jonker Walk to stop for coffee or a beer.
- The Mansion at The Majestic Hotel is a beautiful restaurant, and the best fine dining option in Malacca. It's a great spot for a Singapore Sling and a romantic dinner.
One of the most interesting dishes we tasted was Ayam Bush Keluak, a chicken dish cooked using the nuts from the "Kepayang" tree, a mangrove that grows in Malaysia and Indonesia. These black nuts are first covered in ash for months, then soaked for a few days, before the fermented flesh is removed and minced with prawns. This mince is then put back into the shells, and the stuffed nuts are simmered with the chicken meat to create the gravy.
Other highlights were Ayam Pong Teh, chicken cooked in a sweet gravy of fermented soy beans, Lemak Nenas, prawns and pineapple cooked in coconut milk, Ayam Bush Keras, chicken stir fried with candle nuts and kaffir lime, and Sambal Belacan, a rich chili paste that was great with fried fish.
And of course, a trip to historic Malacca wouldn't be complete without a Hello Kitty trishaw ride... naturally!