At the mention of Malacca, I can almost hear my Singaporean friends’ stomaches start to growl. For Singaporeans, this historic port town on the southwest coast of Malaysia is a foodie destination, worth the 3-4 hours drive for a weekend of yummy indulgences. At first this sounded ridiculous, but then I realized that is kind of how I feel about Portland, so I see where they are coming from now.
A colleague enthusiastically agreed to make the trip by bus with me (motivated, I assume, by his buddy’s tales of creamy laksa and famous chicken rice balls). His sister decided to join us and the three of us set off on a luxury coach across a bridge joining Singapore to the Malaysian border.
The highlight of this trip for me was learning about the complicated history of this sought over port on the Straits of Malacca (trading route between China and India) and visiting a few of the many cultural museums the town has to offer. Most of the major points of interest are within walking distance of each other and though tourism was clearly a big part of the economy, the experience was not overly commercialized.
Our first stop after rolling into town and settling into the historic Peranakan hotel The Baba House, was the famous chicken rice ball shop. Luckily we were visiting at an off-hour, because we walked by around lunch time the next day and saw a wait out the door. Chicken rice is exactly what it sounds like…some rotisserie chicken on rice, often with a heaping helping of MSG, and a side of chili sauce. It is sort of a staple that can be found at just about every food court or hawker center in Singapore. What makes this place unique is that they squish and roll the rice into little balls. Why? I have no idea. Did it make it more delicious? I’m still not sure. However, there wasn’t any MSG, which I very much appreciated, and my friends negotiated with the waiter to leave off the soy sauce (whew). The other unique thing about this place was that they essentially took a cleaver to the whole chicken and chopped it into unidentifiable parts with the bones still in it. This was not particularly conducive to eating with chopsticks, but I’m sure they have their reasons. On the plus side, they were serving kampong chicken, or free-range “village chicken”, which was quite tasty.
Later that evening we walked around a night market on Jonker Walk street that was teaming with locals and tourists alike. Vendors lined the streets selling satay, Chinese-New Year biscuits and cookies, trinkets and toys. On the far ends of the street there were even tables of black-market electronics and a table that looked like someone had raided a CVS pharmacy (toothpaste, deodorant, headache remedies, etc). My friends tried out a few of the snacks and meat-on-a-stick options. The grilled oysters looked pretty interesting, but I opted to stay gf and food poisoning-safe with a bag of roasted chestnuts and one of my favorite beverages: fresh-pressed sugarcane. The vendors feed stalks of sugarcane through a press and pour the juice over ice. It is refreshing, has a slight grassy taste and according to Mr. Google it is full of electrolytes and antioxidants.
We wandered into “THE laksa place” (according to another coworker who was texting us the best places to eat the entire weekend) around 9pm, only to find out they had run out of the rich coconut Nonya laksa and only had sour Assam laksa left. I am not a fan of the sour, fishy broth version so I passed and enjoyed some people-watching while my friend had his supper.
There is a version of laksa for every area of Malaysia. The only requirements seem to be some round, white rice noodles, seafood and some heat. Kind of like if you tell someone you are making chili, that could mean a lot of different things: white chili, red chili, meat chili, veggie chili, etc. Generally, laksa is a safe bet for gluten-free diners as long as you avoid fishcakes (MSG) and fried chicken. If you aren’t traveling with friends that speak the language, my advice would be to find someone waiting in line that looks like they can help you order because the cooks rarely speak any English. It is ok to do a little profiling and pick someone who is texting away on an iPhone and there is a good chance that they speak a bit of English and might be willing to help you.
On day two we had just enough time to time to visit a Peranakan restaurant for lunch before catching our bus home in the afternoon. I wanted to try something new, so I went for the banana flowers sambal – spicy sautéed banana flowers on white rice. No, they didn’t taste at all like bananas..just like a regular vegetable.
On the way out I took a shot of our neighbor’s demolished table because it pretty much visualizes how delicious the meal was.
Foodie paradise aside, I left Malacca with two lasting memories.
1. The Saturday night town square karaoke where young and old (mostly old) gathered to belt out ballads on a stage right in the middle of the night market. I loved the Uncles crooning away in khakis and a worn out old polo.
2. The mode of transportation of choice: locals rode scooters and tourists were transported around in Hello-Kitty tri-cycles blaring pop music from a boombox rigged onto the back.
The visit to Malacca left me with an impression of people who are enjoying life with bright colors, loud music and flavorful food.