Monday, September 21, 2009

eating Melaka: in search of the perfect cendol

Sometimes it’s best to head off on holiday in a previously unexplored destination with few expectations. This is exactly what happened when we snapped up a couple of cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur with only the first stop, a couple of nights in Melaka (Malacca), planned and booked.

Landing at dawn in KL after one of those sleepless overnight flights in the cheap seats down the back of the plane with assorted toddlers screaming in concert, we navigated 4 different rail networks to get from the airport to the interstate bus terminal in the city. Despite the commuter rush, the locals were polite to two over-tired foreigners crashing around with their luggage. Only marginally hindered by the slightly confusing rail network with different lines owned by an assortment of operators, there was only time to down a quick coconut juice before we boarded the sleek, air-conditioned bus and journeyed two hours south to Melaka.

Hotel Putri is a little gem on a street behind Jonker's (aka Chinatown) in the old quarter, housed in a traditional Peranakan house. Pretty though it is, more importantly it’s clean, cool and comfortable, with the bonus of a sumptuous breakfast each morning. It was perfectly placed in the centre of the old town, just around the corner from the weekend night market and a short walk “home” for an afternoon nap from anywhere we wandered .

Other than exploring the old town, the couple of days we originally planned was extended to a week spent eating and having massages. No beach, pool or other things most normal people would head to a tropical climate for – given a choice of going to a resort with bad, expensive food or eating my way through Melaka, I made the obvious choice.

From the moment we stumbled, jetlagged out of our hotel we encountered delightful locals and friendly tourists (mainly from Singapore and surrounding states). It was one of those who saw us with our heads in the travel guide, trying to find a place for lunch that recommended what fast became our favourite local haunt – Jonker Dessert 88. For around AU$4 you can get the best laksa in the world and follow it with the addictive cendol, an icy dessert. This typical Nyonya eatery was packed full of locals and Asian travellers gobbling down delicious soups and assorted curries and queuing up for cendol.

Cendol is deceptively simple. Take crushed ice (usually with the aid of a modified drill press) slathered in the local palm sugar syrup, drenched in coconut milk and add the essential ingredients of red beans and the green little jelly-like cendol itself (pandan flavoured, green wiggly stuff). Most places sell it straight; Jonker 88 being a cendol specialist serves it with sago or creamed corn or flavours like durian. Fortunately I like the latter, as the Significant Eater is a huge durian fan.

We ran into our saviour from the street the next morning at the hotel. It turns out he is from Singapore and was here on his 10th visit to Melaka. He certainly had a nose for cheap, authentic Nonya food and his next recommendation – Nancy’s Kitchen, was equally spectacular.

Unassuming from the outside, Nancy and her food have a strong following. The minute I tasted her assam fish I new why – an explosion of fresh, herby flavours and a decent spicy kick as well. When we arrived an elderly English couple with the kind of food high you get when you’ve lucked on an exceptional meal, pulled us aside to tell us they’d had the best chicken curry in their life.

On another visit to Nancy’s for lunch we had poh piah made out the front of the restaurant for all to see. The vegetarian version of this soft spring roll like wrap is a mixture of crumbled tofu, egg, salad and warm, cooked turnip, topped with a sweetish oyster/soy sauce – simple, cheap and healthy. The rolls cost about $1 and was followed by seafood mee (noodles) and cendol, of course.

We became cendol gurus; sniffing out the best version from restaurants and street stalls. It's hard to pick a winner but Nancy's and Jonker Dessert would likely claim joint title. Just as our new Singaporean friend had done, we shared the love and introduced cendol to at least 4 other travelers new to Melaka. Each one swooned with pleasure.

Coming soon: street food, where the locals eat, the Indian quarter and more.

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Blogger Lucy said...

Lookin' good!

Indian quarter - can't wait.

8:52 am  
Blogger Johanna said...

what a great travel experience - much preferable to tourist resort - though I am not sure I would fancy cendol - I would have a try once though

9:42 am  
Blogger Chai said...

Fantastic!!! Not sure if you got the chance, but the speciality on Malacca is the Satay Celup, which is like steam boat, but with satays.
With steam boat, you dip/cook your skewered food into pot of boiling water/soup, but with this, it is satay sauce.

5:15 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Chai - you will just have to be patient and see what stories will be told in the next post or two :)

Lucy - can't wait to read your food travel stories when you get back.

Johanna - I'm not a big dessert fan but this icy treat is spectacular in the hot climate as the starts melting into more of a sweet coconut-y/palm sugary soup! I cannot understate just how delicious it really is.

5:27 pm  
Blogger Ed said...

Sounds so good - especially the water you can drink - that Maybe I'll change my Summer plans from Vietnam/Cambodia and detour here.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Ed - safe water and a lack of touts in Melaka sure made it an easy place to be. It's a quiet place though and rather lacking nightlife but maybe that was just because it was Ramadan while we were there. The east coast islands are meant to be a great place to chill out too, though suspect it rains an awful lot during our summer.

7:22 pm  
Anonymous Victor said...

Great reading your travelog on recent Melaka trip. I like cendol, sweet and cooling for the hot humid Malaysian weather.

7:36 pm  
Blogger Chai said...

Yeah, the heavy rains happen in the east coast during the monsoon months. Nov - Jan?
It comes down from China/Vietnam and down to Darwin.

8:56 pm  

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