Friday, June 18, 2010


June 18

Malacca’s a very touristy city.

That in itself is not surprising. It’s an old port settled first by a rebel Malay prince of the maritime empire of Srivijaya, whose capital, it is believed, was near the modern-day city of Palembang, on Sumatra.

Then the Portuguese took it over, then the Dutch, who traded it to the British for Aceh, the northernmost province on Sumatra (and the epicenter, as you may recall, of that terrible tsunami in 2004).

So it has cool architecture and old forts turned into museums and, on top of that, is an important center for Peranakan culture and Nyonya cuisine. Why wouldn’t it be touristy?

What I found interesting was that most of the tourists we saw were Malaysians.

I hadn’t expected that.

But we didn’t take a day-trip to Malacca to see its historic sites (although we did a bit of that; you might as well while you’re there). We were there to eat Nyonya food. See? That’s me, on the right, taking notes as Alvin, the owner of Taragon restaurant, explained what I was about to eat.

See how serious a note-taker I am? I was, as always, glad that Albert Foo was there to take the pictures.

Usually in the United States we refer to the food of the Straits Chinese as Nyonya cuisine.

Actually, we don’t usually refer to the Straits Chinese at all, as Malaysia is noticeably absent from our country’s radar. We don’t know a thing about the place. But you know what I mean.

In Malaysia I’ve usually heard it referred to as Baba-Nyonya, which is really more illustrative. As I understand it, “Baba” is Chinese for father, while “Nyonya” is Malay for mother, or “madam” — the female head of the house.

You see, single Chinese men came to the Malay Peninsula centuries ago to work in the tin mines. They married Malay women and tried to instruct them how to cook food they were accustomed to.

But the Malay women had their own ideas, and as a matter of course added their own culinary flourishes to the food.

The result was dishes like the sambal-petai squid you see as the first picture of food in this blog entry. It’s stir-fried squid — something Chinese would make, but it’s flavored with Malay sambal, the local chile sauce, often spiked with shrimp paste called belacan (pronounced bla-chan), and a, oh, let’s call it aromatic, bean called petai, known for its bitter taste and ability to linger on the breath.

Next is terung bakar, or eggplant, served with chiles and a soy-sauce based gravy.

Notice also the tiny limes that flourish in this part of the world.

Next, well, that’s actually just a Malay dish — beef rendang. It’s a sort of curry made — as curries generally are — by heating chiles and other spices in oil, and adding liquid to that. Rendang has coconut milk added to it, and is generally cooked down until most of the liquid has evaporated, although like all national dishes it kind of depends on who you talk to.

Alvin told us that at Taragon they make the rendang a day in advance to make it taste better, as stews tend to do as their flavors meld.

We also had a cincalok omelet. Cincalok (pronounced cheen-cha-loke) is very much like belacan, except it comes from Malacca.

The last picture is of lemak nenas, a ginger-laden fish cooked with coconut sauce and pineapple.


Al said...

I like the post with such a nice material which is much informative. Thanks. your Photography is also good.

freddo41 said...

Hi Brett,
I came across your Penang blogs while looking for something entirely different.
You certainly seem to know your Malaysian food and it was a joy to read.
Those people at Matrade certainly got their moneysworth from your visit.
I'm sold!