Monday, July 22, 2013

One Fine Full Meal (or Two) in Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca surprised me in more ways than one. I came here thinking I was going to get my dose of history and with it, photogenic colonial architecture. I did not realize that the food, the amazing food, was going to leave a lasting impression on me, too. Lasting enough that I still crave for the flavors of Malacca, and those of the Strait Settlements of Southeast Asia, after I've come home. Lasting enough that I went so far as to recreate one of the dishes that I had there. Lasting enough that I have actually made plans to return and explore the delicious food landscape of this culturally diverse region more. But that's for later.

Popiah, Malacca Old Town, Malaysia
The best foods of Southeast Asia are prepared right on the streets. Malacca is no exception. This is a stall serving delicious spring rolls called popiah.

Today, I tell you about some of the best foods I had in Malacca. After having laid out some of the best food I had in Thailand as well as in Vietnam, it was time I do the same for Malacca. Here is one fine full meal (or two) in Malacca, Malaysia.

1. Appetizer: Popiah

Popiah, Malacca Old Town, Malaysia
Simple and fresh popiah on the streets of Malacca, the perfect snack.

Many of the world's greatest cuisines have some version of tasty meat and vegetables flavored with sauce and wrapped in bread or dough. Burritos, empanadas, samosas, dumplings and this, popiah. Popiah originates from Southern China, in Fujian province. People from this region migrated to many parts of Southeast Asia. Malacca, having been a prosperous trading port, received many of these migrants, including their food. One of their most popular snacks is popiah.

We have popiah back in the Philippines (in all its various versions), but we call them lumpia. The Malaysian version is a bit different, definitely something that I have never had before. The filling is a combination of cooked slices of turnip, bean sprouts, scrambled eggs and a few green leaves thrown in for good measure. The mixture is held together by a dark peanut sauce before wrapped in a thin crepe. It is a really good, simple snack and I found a couple of stalls selling popiah in the streets of Malacca.

2. Main Course 1: Baba Laksa

Laksa Assembly Area, Malacca Old Town, Malaysia
Laksa prep area of Jonker88 Restaurant in Malacca Old Town

As I have mentioned quite a few times in this blog, I am a big fan of noodles in a rich, coconut curry broth. Chiang Mai's Khao Soi will always be up there in my list of favorite foods of all time. Imagine my happiness when I found another equally delicious coconut curry soup in Malacca. The soup is called laksa, a popular dish in this part of the world. To say that it has many different versions would be an understatement. In Malacca, you can have either a Baba laksa or a Nyonya laksa. The Baba-Nyonya, or the Peranakans, are the descendants of the Chinese migrants of the Strait Settlements who married the local Malays. The marriage created a rich culture and a delicious fusion cuisine found only here.

Baba Laksa, Malacca Old Town, Malaysia
Red-orange, spicy goodness: laksa. It's Southeast Asia in a bowl.

I went to one of the more popular (read: touristy) Peranakan restaurants in Malacca: Jonker88, which needless to say was super busy during the lunch rush. I ordered a Baba laksa and saw it being assembled in the prep area located at the entrance of the restaurant. Thin, vermicelli noodles were used and with the noodles, the cook threw in a spoonful of tuna flakes, slices of onions, half of a hard-boiled egg, slices of tofu, and a big chunk of crispy, fish wafer. These components were all immersed in the curry broth. It was standing room only in that restaurant when I was there, but that could not stop me from devouring the big bowl of curry before me at the bar. The soup was spicy, fishy, dark, coconut-y and all things flavorful. It was insane.

3. Main Course 2: Chicken Tandoori

Chicken Tandoori, Masala Dal, and Naan in Malacca, Malaysia
How can you go wrong with authentic Indian food? Chicken tandoori is always a good decision.

Those who are more inclined to try authentic Indian food can very well do so in any of the many Indian eateries in Malacca. You know they are authentic because (1) the cooks are actually of Indian heritage, and (2) local Indians actually come to eat in these restaurants. Indians, specifically those from the south, are one of the ethnic groups who have come to settle in Malacca during its colonial period.

Indian Restaurant, Malacca, Malaysia
Look. A real tandoor oven!

The restaurant I ate in is located right beside Francis Xavier Church outside of Malacca Old Town. Seeing real tandoor ovens at the entrance, I knew I just had to order chicken tandoori. Tandoor ovens are the cyclical, clay ovens used in India, the Middle East and Central Asia. When Indian food is colored orange, an Indian friend told me, it is bound to be good. This proved true here: chicken spiced so many ways and grilled orange just right. I ate it with naan flatbread and had masala dal to go with it. Masala dal is a mixture of spices using dal, or lentils, as the base.

4. Beverage: Cendol

Cendol Drink, Malacca, Malaysia
Cendol. You are everywhere in Southeast Asia and I love it.

For beverage, dessert, or really just a refreshing snack to beat the heat of Southeast Asia, cendol would have to be up there in the list for Malacca. It is sold everywhere in the city. Cendol is a jelly made from rice flour, usually flavored (and colored) with pandan leaves. The big chunk of jelly is strained so that it comes out in short cylindrical shapes. It is then immersed in ice-cold coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar. It is really sweet, it is really refreshing, and it is really good.

5. Dessert: Sago Gula Melaka

Sago Gula Melaka, Malacca, Malaysia
Cool sago in cool coconut milk sweetened with dark palm sugar. I mean, which genius came up with this delicious goodness?

If you are still craving for sweets after your cendol experience, then look no further than sago gula melaka. This is a simple dessert dish using sago as base. Sago is a ball of starch extracted from palm branches. Here, sago is eaten with coconut milk (of course) and sweetened with gula melaka, a dark, very sweet, palm sugar made here in Malacca, usually sold in big solid chunks. I have tried making sago gula melaka at home, having sorely missed the flavors of Malacca, and I say I did pretty good.

There you have one fine full meal (or two) in Malacca, Malaysia. I am definitely heading back and exploring more flavors of the Strait Settlements. Having tasted these foods, I'm sure you would, too.

Which of your travel destinations surprised you with its delicious cuisine?

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