Sunday, January 5, 2014

Malacca: Laksa, lanterns & laughter

The Malaysian Driving Code 

1. Thou shall drive 30km above the speed limit at all times. 
2. Thou shall not wear thy seatbelt. 
3. Thou shall not indicate when changing lanes, ever. 
4. Thou shall honour thy GPS. 
5. Reversing on the freeway is totally fine. 

Figure 1: Get off the road

There are some things in life that scare the shit out of me. One of them is driving in Malaysia. But on a sunny Wednesday morning, my friends and I took my 1991 Proton for a two-hour road trip to Malacca. Never in a million years did I think I would be capable of driving that distance in this country, where the roads are incomprehensible and the driving etiquette is utterly shambolic. But I had a good feeling about this day in particular, and decided to take a leap of faith. Or rather, my passengers did. 

Figure 2: Pedro, Jenny & Popo

So why Malacca? Firstly, it's where I was born. Secondly, I think it's beautiful. You will not find many other places in the world with such an amazing cultural heritage.

Figure 3: Malacca canals (Photo: The Telegraph) 

Malacca started out as a quiet fishing village. In the 1400s, it became an important trading port due to its strategic location on the narrowest point of the Malacca Straits, especially for the Chinese Imperial Fleet. In 1459, the Ming Emperor sent his daughter to marry the Sultan of Malacca, bringing with her a thousand high-ranking officials and servants. Many of them married local Malays, creating the descendants now known as the Peranakan (half Chinese, half Malay). Everywhere you go in Malaysia you will see the words Baba and Nyonya - this is how Peranakan men and women address each other.

Figure 4: Red Square

Over the next three centuries, Malacca was colonised by the Portuguese (1511), Dutch (1641) and the British (1824), each of them leaving their mark upon Malacca. As a result, you'll be walking through Malacca and see a Dutch windmill, a statue of a Chinese ship, remains of a Portuguese fort and then a British Church, all within walking distance from each other. Malacca City became UNESCO World Heritage Listed in 2008, a title that all Malaccans, including me, are very proud of. 

Figure 5: Jonker Street (Photo: Singapore Getaways)

Our first stop: Jonker Street. Because in my opinion, if you haven't seen Jonker Street, you haven't seen Malacca. By day, Jonker Street is abuzz with tourists and locals alike who come in search of food, trinkets, and local art. By night, the entire strip is blocked off and transforms into the night market to end all night markets, selling every kind of delicious street food you could ever imagine, all in one small, sweaty, claustrophobic space. What I love the most about Jonker Street is the architecture - every building is luridly coloured and beautifully adorned, each one giving a glimpse into Malacca's past.

Figure 6: Jonker Street shopfront

Jonker Dessert 88
Jalan Hang Jebat 
Malacca, Malaysia
+60 19 397 5665

Finding Jonker 88 is easy. Just look for the huge whopping line of people queueing under a burgundy awning, about half-way down Jonker Street. At the entrance you'll see a dessert stall on your left, noodle stall on your right. You need three people: one to queue, one to suss out the menu, and one to send into battle (find a table). 

Figure 7: Table wars

Figure 8: Jonker 88 menu 

And just so you know what you're actually ordering: 

Curry (Baba) Laksa: A spicy, rich noodle soup made with a coconut curry base. Ingredients usually include bean sprouts, prawns, bean curd puffs, coriander, sliced chicken and/or fishcakes and yellow noodles. One of my favourite dishes in the world. 

Asam (Nyonya) Laksa: Asam is the Malay word for tamarind, a fruit-like pod that adds sourness to a dish. This type of laksa is made with fish stock, and features shredded fish, finely sliced cucumber, onion, pineapple, chillies, mint and pink ginger, topped off with a thick, sweet shrimp paste. Rice noodles (thick or thin) are used. 

Laksa Kahwin: A mix of both asam and curry laksa (for advanced laksa-eaters only). 

Figure 9: Baba laksa and shrimp dumplings 

You will be soaked in sweat from the suffocating heat and humidity. You order your laksa, which is made instantly before your eyes. You are then shooed away and have to manoeuvre through the crowd without spilling curry soup all over yourself. When you start eating, the hot broth will increase your body temperature even further, making it almost unbearable to continue, but the irresistible blend of coconut milk and spices and refreshing cucumber will be too good for you to stop. You therefore end up eating your laksa at top speed, leaving your mouth burning, your head spinning, and all you will be able to think about is quenching your thirst with an ice-cold dessert, which is conveniently also on offer at Jonker 88. Clever business model, if you ask me. 

Figure 10: Cédric et moi 

Figure 11: Three types of Ice Kachang and Cendol 

For dessert, you can choose from a myriad of curious toppings served upon a snowball of shaved ice such as coconut cream, molten gula melaka (Malaccan palm sugar - tastes like caramel on steroids, its amazeballs), corn kernels, passionfruit, mango puree, raspberry syrup - the list is endless. Hands down, the best dessert is cendol - a cold, sweet, musty mix of red beans, pandan "worms", gula melaka and coconut cream. It's like being electrocuted, only with sugar. 

Figure 12: Educating the foreigners

Figure 13: Malacca canals 

Figure 14: Stadthuys

Over the river you will find the iconic Stadthuys (try pronouncing it), also known as the Red Square, built in 1650 for the Dutch Governor. During the Dutch rule over Malacca, the buildings were white, like all Dutch administration buildings in Asia. In 1824, the Dutch handed over Malacca to the British, who painted the buildings a salmon red. The records as to why the buildings were painted red have been lost in time, as well as other secrets - some say there's a secret tunnel that runs under St Paul's hill from Stadthuys, and another escape route that leads to Malacca river, amongst other secret walkways inside the building. 

Figure 15: Team Malacca

Figure 16: Got pink?

Next we traveled to St Paul's Hill, in style. The trishaws of Malacca have gone a little overboard the last few years. When I was a tween, the decorations were still fairly traditional - red and yellow flowers, green leaves. These days, trishaws come decked out with at least one large Hello Kitty on the front and a sub-woofer (ours was playing MJ). I think out of all of us, Cedric was the happiest about this. 

Figure 17: So much joy

Figure 18: A' Famosa Fort 

These remains are all that's left of the Portuguese Fort that once surrounded St Paul's Hill. The British were about to demolish the whole damn thing in 1806, but Sir Stamford Raffles (the founder of modern Singapore and lover of history) convinced them to spare this small section of it. It's one of the oldest surviving European architectural remains in Asia. I've always loved the quaint old image engraved above the entrance. It makes me wonder just how beautiful the entire structure must have been. 

Figure 19: Inside St Paul's Church

St Paul's Church sits on top of the hill, overlooking the sea. The original structure was built by the Portuguese, and later given to The Society of Jesus under Saint Francis Xavier, one of the most famous Catholic Missionaries in history. Saint Francis started a modern school in the surrounding premises, expanded the church building and used it as a base for missions to China and Japan. After he died, he was temporarily buried in St Paul's before being transported to Goa. The open grave still exists today and tourists can look down into the place where he once lay. 

Fun fact: in 1952, the below statue was erected to mark the 400th anniversary of Saint Francis's arrival in Malacca. The next day, a huge casuarina tree fell fell onto it, breaking off the statue's right arm. Funnily enough, the actual right arm of St Francis Xavier was also cut off as a relic in 1614 after he died. 


Figure 20: Past and present

Figure 21: Filling the air with music

Calanthe Art Café
Jalan Hang Kasturi
Malacca, Malaysia

+60 6292 2960

Figure 22: Artsy

By late afternoon, it was seriously coffee-o-clock, so we headed to my favourite café in Malacca. I actually wrote about Calanthe Art Café one year ago in my article: My Top 10 Food Experiences: Malacca, which got me my current job in Kuala Lumpur, so it was nice to come full circle. They serve 12 types of coffee, one for every state of Malaysia, any way you want. It's one of the only places I've found around here that do iced coffee the way I like it - not too thick, with loads of cream on top, perfectly sweet and icy, icy cold. 

Figure 23: Iced Johor coffee

Figure 24: Baked Portuguese fish

Our last stop: the Portuguese Settlement, which sits between Jalan Ujong Pasir and the ocean. This small area of land is home to the Kristang (Portuguese-Malay) people, descendants of the Portuguese sailors who arrived in 1511. The Kristang people are only a few thousand in numbers, and have their own language (a creole based on Portuguese), cuisine and traditions. At the end of Jalan Dalbuquerque, there is a row of white open-air restaurants that sell delicious fresh seafood and Kristang dishes that you cannot get anywhere else. 

Figure 25: Kristang-style Garlic butter crab 

Figure 26: Operation Lantern

Figure 27: One of my favourite photos

If you ever get to Malacca one day, you must promise me this. That you will buy a lantern from a one of the stalls by the ocean in the Portuguese Settlement, and let it go. The girl will give you a permanent marker and a cigarette lighter. You write your wish on the lantern, go to the end of the jetty (if it's not too windy), light your lantern and watch it make a break for the sky. 

Figure 28: Up 'n' away

Figure 29: Hope for the best

Every wish that I've made from that jetty in Malacca has come true so far. This time, I wished that one day I will be the owner of the awesomest Australian brunch café ever. 

I hope this one comes true too.

Figure 30: Free

1 comment:

CJOSEPH said...

Wonderful post and pics. It reminds me of my Malacca visit 3 years ago.