Melaka – Museums and Food

It’s impossible to visit Melaka without stumbling into a museum. There’s a Museum of Literature, Museum of Architecture, Museum of History, Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Chinese Jewellery, Museum of the Democratic Government, Museum of Toys, Museum of Stamps, Museum of Islam, Museum of Prisons, you name a human endeavour, they’ve built a museum for it in Melaka. Now I’m no museum person and my first inclination when I pass one by is to keep walking but I found a couple of the ones dedicated to specific ethnic groups somewhat interesting.

The Chitty Museum, dedicated to the Tamil trading community that had settled down in Malaysia in the 16th century, was housed in a remarkably well preserved old Chitty house. They were ethnically similar to the Tamil Chettiars, a gloriously wealthy trading community in Tamil Nadu whose business acumen was much envied. The Chitty’s, though, had assimilated Chinese, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch influences in their religious iconography, clothing and food, making them a distinctly different ethnic group culturally with faint echoes of the Chettiar past, and the artifacts, photographs and illustrations in this museum illuminated their lives and their culture beautifully.

The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum , on the other hand, has to be the most elaborate museum dedicated to the life of a single person, that I have ever been to. Here, spread across a number of Chinese shophouses, lie the antiques and the treasures and the miniaturized ships that belonged to the legendary Chinese mariner Zhang He. Immortalized in the accounts of explorers as diverse as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolo De Conti, Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that undertook treasure voyages into South-east Asia, India, Africa and Arabia and was among the most influential figures in Chinese history. The museum is built on what is believed to be the site of an old warehouse that Zheng used to stash his treasures.

It would be a pity to finish talking about my time in Melaka without talking about its food because every meal I had here was excellent. But there were two that are particularly memorable 7 years on. The first was a place called Pak Putra, run by two brothers from Gujranwalla in Pakistan. Big, hulking tandoors manned by bustling chefs in aprons suggested a joint that meant business. Tables and chairs filled with a mix of largely regular Malaccan patrons and a scattering of tourists meant the Pakistani brothers delivered what they promised. The tandoori chicken was supremely tender and succulent, marinated to perfection while the naan was utterly delectable, subtly garnished with fragrant spices. After the meal, I sought one of the brothers out and when I told him how much I loved the food, he gave me a big hug saying he always found it deeply heartening when someone from across the border loved his food.

The other meal that I remember from back in 2012 is a busy and popular satay celup place whose name I have tried to remember for years on end but can’t (yeah I know it’s useless to talk about a restaurant on a travel blog if you don’t know its name but anyone who’s actually paying attention would know that this blog isn’t particularly useful anyway and usefulness was never its principal objective). It was small, redolent with the aroma of fragrant gravies and choc-a-bloc with people (mostly Chinese/Malay Chinese), all of whom appeared to be families sitting on big round tables dipping their meaty sticks into big bowls of steaming and bubbling satay liquid.

So I thought maybe I should come back on a slower day or seek another satay place out to quench my satay hunger but as I was leaving, this dude ran right up to me, pulled up a chair and asked me to sit on a table packed with 5 people. He pointed to a refrigerator full of sticks with dozens of unnamed varieties of seafood, vegetables and meat and asked me to get whatever I wanted and dip it in the steaming pot of satay gravy that was bubbling in the center of the table.

I learnt that none of the people who were sharing my table knew each other from before. It was a beautiful communal eating experience where the 75-year old Chinese gentleman from Guangdong and the Malay girl sitting next to me were holding my hand through the mystical process of getting a well-cooked stick of satay. When they saw that I was hopeless at this feat despite their elaborate instructions and had been either undercooking or overcooking the sticks, they took over my plate of assorted meats and started doing my satays for me. I don’t know what they were doing differently (the instructions were to dip the meats in the hot gravy for a few minutes and eat) but it transformed my food from thick chewy inedible flesh to soft, tender, scrumptious skewers. Every few minutes the waiters would come to add bits of soup or stir the gravy or offer some special meats like tiger prawns or varieties of shellfish.

At the end of this gargantuan meal, I was filled to bursting but the old Chinese man coaxed the entire group to get some dessert at a place he knew nearby. While slurping my bowl of cendol, I learnt that the Malay girl worked at a mobile phone store in Kuala Lumpur. It was her first time in Melaka as well despite the fact that she had spent all her life in and around KL and it was only 3 hours away by road from the city. She preferred more natural settings, she said, and travelled frequently to the Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara. She was quite a traveller herself and had once lived in a camper van while driving from Melbourne to Darwin.

When I told her that I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur the day after, she tried her best to dissuade me from going there. “Why would you want to go to Kuala Lumpur?” she said, “It’s just a big concrete jungle. I wouldn’t live there myself if I didn’t have to work to save for my next trip! You should go to the Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, Sarawak, even Penang! There’s nothing in Kuala Lumpur. Just big buildings and malls and expensive hotels.”

Her points were valid and having spent over 10 ridiculously expensive days just the previous week in Singapore, my enthusiasm for another South-East Asian metropolis was fairly low. Melaka was the perfect change from Singapore, a quiet easy going touristy town with quaint old architecture, a place where nothing was too far or too expensive. Kuala Lumpur was bound to be more hectic and challenging. But it would be a pity to travel across Malaysia without a cursory glance at its capital city. So I ignored the Malay girl’s advice and headed to the Melaka bus station the next morning to go to Malaysia’s biggest metropolis.

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Melaka – Jonker 88 and other sweets

“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.

“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.

“Yes, you.”

“Doing fine. How’re you?”

“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”

If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.

“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.

“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”

“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”

She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.

“How do you like it?”, she asked.

“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”

“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”

“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”

“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”

“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”

I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.

“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”

“It’s too expensive”, I said.

“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”

“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”

“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”

“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”

“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.

“Yeah, dessert would be good.”

“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”

She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.

We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.

We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.

I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.

Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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