Melaka

My Malaysian food odyssey

Before I start  talking about Malaysia I need to back track to when we were still in Norway. We were chatting to Lillian, who we visited in Nannestad, about some of the people who had stayed with her before. She mentioned one particular chap who came from India, who has come back several times to visit her and who she referred to as her ‘son’. She remarked that the first time he came to stay he did not speak a scrap of Norwegian, but that he was super intelligent and within two weeks flat he could hold complete conversations with her. I was astounded by this story and Damien added his little take by telling us about a doco he had seen regarding an autistic British guy who went to Iceland. He underwent intensive language lessons for a week and by the next he was able to conduct an interview in Icelandic on TV. Icelandic is apparently one of the most complex languages to learn and thus his ability is one to be admired.

Some days later I was quietly musing about these brainiacs who walk in our midst when I pondered out loud to Damo, “I wonder what people as intelligent as Lillian’s Indian son think about? I mean what higher order thoughts go on in their heads?” Damien poker faced and I believe somewhat seriously replied, “What’s for dinner?” There was my answer. Well this brought me instantly unstuck. Of course! What’s for dinner indeed! These are the thoughts that must keep the intellectual elite busy!

And if this is truly what dominates the minds of the enlightened ones, well, let me count myself amongst the elite! Since Damien’s profound statement in Norway, “What’s for dinner?” has become a bit of a running joke on the trip and it ramped up quite considerably when we hit Malaysia. It’s entirely fair to say that thoughts of food dominated our pathway through this country and served as meaningful punctuation marks throughout each day. It reached its peak in Melaka where we soon were stretching out what was supposed to be a two night stop into a five nighter, not least because we swiftly came to the conclusion that three meals a day was utterly insufficient to accomodate our ever burgeoning list of must eat venues.

I should take a quick pause here to mention that Malaysia is such a great dining experience because of the mix of cultures that live here. The three cultures that dominate are the Malays, Indians and Chinese. It is not uncommon to enjoy a blend of these cuisines all in the one delectable meal. Malaysia is also the home of Nonya cooking. The origins of this cuisine are based in the heritage of the Chinese of the Melacca Straits who combined their cooking with Malay spices. Which in my humble opinion is a wonderful marriage.

Something tickled my fancy when I was later reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Penang (a renowned foodie destination) and the author stated quite matter of factly:

“People come to Penang to eat. Even if you thought you came here for another reason, your goals might change dramatically once you start digging into the Indian, Chinese, Malay, Thai and various hybrid treats available. Days revolve around where and what to eat, and three meals starts to soundly depressingly scant.”

Excuse me, but were you eavesdropping on our conversation and stealing the very words out of our mouths? It appears we are not the only slaves to this stomach driven dilemma! Same country, different town it seems.

So without further ado let me list off the foodie highlights of my journey through Malaysia.

Tioman

We loved Tioman but sadly the food was not as beautiful as the view. Lucky for us Tioman was our first foray into Malaysian cuisine and fresh off the back of the heavy cold winter food of Northern Europe. By comparison it stacked up okay but I am pleased that it in no way set the standard for what we should expect in the rest of this country.

Mersing

The mainland town of  Mersing serves as the launching pad to Tioman and is not a particularly amazing town, but it is memorable to me as I view it as the start of my food odyssey proper. It was here that I had the best meal of my trip ’til that point, and it was only knocked off its perch three days ago in Penang.

It commenced with our breakfast in a dingy, stray cat ridden, roadside establishment where there were (initially) no other patrons. Generally I read this as a neon sign flashing ‘Do not eat here’. However, we were hungry and hell bent on tracking down some nasi lemak and took what we could get. Happily, we were not disappointed. Nasi Lemak is a simple dish of rice, a few peanuts, chilli paste, some little dried fish and then usually either egg, salted fish or fried chicken. I went the salted fish and Damo the fried chicken. Let’s just say for the record that ol’ Damo has had a bit of a love affair with the fried chicken of Malaysia.

It was lunch that stole the show for me. We walked all of about ten paces to the right of where we were staying to an open air restaurant which offered a range of different meal choices from which you could serve yourself. This is a very common way of dining in Malaysia and one I like because I don’t have to bother with trying to remember the Malay word, I can just look and pick. Excellent. Anyway, I was introduced to a few dishes here that I would revisit many times on my trip and some I didn’t have the pleasure of tasting again, but all in all it was so yummy and I was even more ecstatic because it set me back not much more than $1. Bloody brilliant! And might I add that I was eating seafood for that price – prawns and fish, amongst a fine selection of other meat and vege dishes. One that I tried first here (and was a regular feature of meals henceforth) was the simple but always tasty fried kailan. This is a basic dish of fried greens with chilli and often tiny salted fish and garlic. Yes, chilli. If you don’t enjoy chilli you are pretty well stuffed in this country as they seem to slip it into everything. However, it is possible to dodge it if you need to, which I did for a stint after some pretty hectic chilli eating sessions in a row!

Melaka

I cannot emphasise enough how much sorting out what we were going to eat for the day (and the days after that day) consumed our thoughts and time whilst we were there.

In no particular order I am going to detail the best moments:

  1. Dim sum breakfast. This is yum cha for breakfast in essence, and a lot of meats in steamed stuff feature. Sorry I can’t be more informative than that but we literally just sat down and pointed to things and tried them out. All were delicious. We tried to go back there for another breakfast and were quite bummed it was shut on that day 😦 We did soon come to realise while we were there that Malaysians don’t always have set open hours or days, and you really just have to hope and pray that if you liked it once it will be open again. We were caught out this way more than once when trying to revisit good places.
  2. Night market. Although as night markets go it wasn’t outstanding, it was interesting in that it really was (aside from the gaudy coloured kitsch items on sale) all about stuff on sticks. And let’s face it, in my experience stuff on sticks are always oh so good and oh so bad in equal parts. What’s not to like? I was having a ‘damn the diet’ night that night and gravitated towards the potato on a stick very hastily. I had seen a girl eating one in the street a few days before but was having a health kick day and staunchly refused to succumb. Not the same Kristen was found lurking in the night market. I was the stick monster! Potato on a stick is a simple pleasure of a whole potato magically twirled around a stick like a slinky…and tastes like a kettle chip. A series of other meats on sticks ensued. I must note for posterity here though, that none of this stick food reached the lofty heights of my ultimate food on a stick discovery in a Japanese department store: fatty chicken skin on a stick. Amen.
  3. Selvam. Indian restaurant extraordinaire. Damien had dined here when he was last in Melaka and was very keen to revisit. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he maintained it was the Indian food that got the gurnsey from him last time. Eating at Selvam makes it easy to understand why. We ate here twice in total. They serve your meal on a large slice of banana leaf and you can opt to eat like the locals, with your hands, or just do it the usual way, with cutlery. I attempted with hands the first time and soon realised that there was a knack to this style of eating and clearly, I didn’t have it so I just embraced my western-ness and ate with fork and spoon. Our first meal was a 12 dish-a-thon of vegetarian delights. Oh Mumma! It was goooood. I have often thought that it is the vegetarian dishes that are the standout for me when it comes to Indian food, and this culinary experience was an excellent example of that. I have to say that the Indian food in Malaysia is outstanding and different to a lot of what we get in Australia. I wish some of it would find it’s way across the sea quite frankly! Selvam was a standout, no doubt about it.
  4. Baboon House and Casa del Rio. Good coffee is a little hard to come by in Melaka and we came across the Baboon House one morning when strolling in the streets and decided to give it a shot. It was a great little find. It tasted like real coffee which was a bonus but it was made all the more enjoyable for the location. The Baboon House is a lovely little oasis with very interesting art works adorning the walls, and an abundance of plants in pots to make it feel more like I was in some funky little cafe in hippy land than in Melaka. We decided another day to take our books and go and relax there for a coffee and a bit of fiction, however, it was shut. We were somewhat directionless after that unlucky discovery and stood dejected outside on the street trying to think of what we should do next. Yes, yes, I know, the pressing decisions of the jobless! When suddenly I had a blinding flash of brilliance (insert tickets flapping in the wind here) that we should try our luck down the road at the five star Casa del Rio, well appointed darlink, on the Melaka River. I figured a five star resort should cater to our western tastes and we could enjoy some upmarket surrounds to boot. We arrived and soon found ourselves ensconsed, sipping coffee,  in a cushioned cabana by the beautiful and extravagantly large water feature in in the centre of the resort. Noice. Very noice.
  5. Pineapple tart place (name of shop deleted from the memory files…but not the tarts!) We read that one must try the pineapple tarts when one is in Melaka. If one must, then, who am I to argue? So we tracked down an outlet that funnily enough had baked the worlds largest tart which was on display and was there for the viewing. As were a bunch a funky young, Malay twenty somethings doing a TV special on the tarts in that store. Thus, Damien and I found ourselves hiding behind display stands trying to avoid getting our dials on TV. Trapped for a rather long time (we had tarts to devour, damn it!) we were eventually able to escape, eat the said tarts and hopefully remained unfilmed. And yes, one must! For the sweet lovers out there (which I am not overly as a rule) they are soft, sweet pineapple fillings encased  in a buttery, flaky pastry. A legacy of the Portuguese in this country.

Georgetown

As the Lonely Planet guru stated above, apparently Penang (which Georgetown is a part of) is a foodie heaven. However, despite the fact we stayed there six nights in total we nearly completely missed understanding how this could be so. I am not ashamed to say that a fair amount of the reason for us staying was, quite honestly, the people and the the pillows. Seriously. It is one of the shittier parts of the island but we happened upon a bunch of completely cool people who we had a mad day and night hanging out with, followed by an equally bad hangover. This was then followed by the allure of the lovely newness of our guesthouse, the Red Inn Court. It had amongst other attractions amazingly great beds and super soft pillows …. I miss those pillows already. I wonder how long it will take me to find some more like that? But it was over our free brekky at the Red Inn Court that we met some of those lovely peeps, so that meal in itself deserves a mention. For a free spread, it was top notch! No sooner had we sat down for breakfast when a still drunk Brit called Mike was chatting merrily to us and in not too many more words was insisting we come and stay with him in London. And Bec, this line is especially for you cause I know you will understand…it was exactly like when Freddy meets George in Room With A View and his first words are, “How do you do, come and have a bathe.” Anyway, a day of hangovers followed by a day of sloth meant that the Old Trafford Burger cart on Chulia Road was getting a work out and shaping up to be the food highlight of Penang. Dear oh dear, a tad pathetic really. But should you ever make your way to Georgetown, do track it down if you are hankering for a little somethin’ somethin’ that reminds you of home. But never fear, we foodies got our shit together and upped the ante and landed ourselves in Chinese food heaven for dinner on nights five and six…the Teksen Restaurant (ranked #1 of 183 restaurants in Georgetown by Tripadvisor). This is by far one of the most amazing Chinese dining experiences I’ve had. It is somewhat expensive in local terms, meals starting at an exorbitant $3 a plate but the food is to die for. The aubergine in red bean paste was amazing and reaffirmed my love affair with all things eggplant. Damien has his fried chicken, I have my eggplant. The hand-made tofu with scallop and egg white was also amazing and could sit proudly on any hatted restaurant menu in Australia, and we paid diddly squat for it. So there you have it, that was the highlight of my Malaysian food odyssey. Sorry Mersing, you lose.

Categories: Art, food, Malaysia, Melaka, travel | Leave a comment

Tinkerbell lives in Timun

When we landed in Melaka I started browsing the local tourist brochure, when I noticed a small paragraph mentioning that it was possible to view what is apparently the best firefly colony in Malaysia. This immediately sparked my interest. As it was mentioned in a published brochure I incorrectly assumed that it would be easy to arrange a tour of this natural treat. Three days of searching soon proved me wrong.

We were both very interested in making a trip out to see these little critters but every attempt we made to source information brought up another dead end. No one had heard of it or knew even in the slightest way how to assist us with getting to see them.

We searched high and low on the internet, scouring travel chat rooms and other people’s blogs in an effort to locate some useful information. All we received was a rather unnecessarily curt response from one person who challenged Damien’s rudeness for “hijacking” someone else’s fruitless post /enquiry about the bugs, apparently this is not the done thing and we should have started another post. It takes all types.

On our last day in Melaka before we were due to depart to head off to Sepang, Damien suggested that we go to the Discovery Café as he had read in Lonely Planet that this was a reliable place to go for information on tourist options in the town. We headed down the river to the Discovery Café not too hopeful that it would be a fruitful venture but willing to give it one more shot, after all we are travelling to see more than the towns and eat the food! As good as that may all be.

I have very fond memories of years ago when I was at a party at my friend’s place in Uki of seeing my first firefly. I was sitting out the back of the house overlooking a little valley, engrossed in conversation with a new found friend, when out of nowhere a little firefly came and floated in front of us lazily and then glided off into the darkness. It was a magical moment, as I had never seen something like this before and recollections of this moment spurred me on to continue in our quest to find a means of seeing these little guys in Malaysia.

We met Mr Tang, the owner of the Café, and he was quickly encouraging us to stay, drink beer and listen to his band play. We sat down and explained our mission and he was only too happy to assist. He got straight on his mobile and started what sounded like a very earnest conversation to obtain us the hitherto elusive details. After what seemed a very long time he concluded the conversation and told us that he needed to get someone to talk to someone else and if we came back in about four hours he may have something for us. Fair enough, it was more promising than previous efforts so we stayed for a beer and marvelled at the large array of washed up and strung out looking travellers around us, staring off depressingly into the night. Time to get out of there even if the beer and the music was OK!

Return we did and Mr Tang beamed that he had been able to arrange a taxi out to Sungai Timun, where we would be introduced to a man who would take us down the river to see the fireflies. We dearly wanted to stay at Sungai Timun as we had heard that lobster was often caught there by the local fisherman and that crocodiles and birds were also in abundance on the river. But the cost involved and the difficulty in communicating and executing our plan soon dictated that we would need to adjourn and discuss whether we took this option any further. Seeing only the fireflies and staying in Melaka afterwards would mean back tracking to Melaka after the festival, and staying additional nights before heading up the coast to Penang. Should we or shouldn’t we? Damien in his thoroughness had me answering an array of “what if this” and “what if that” options until finally we decided that yes, it is OK not to go on our trip in a linear direction and that doing a return journey to Melaka after the festival was the right decision.

Buoyed by our recent experience at the festival we went to see Mr Tang on Monday, mildly confident that this venture via taxi out into the countryside would bear fruit and not be a TIA moment. Monday night rolled around and we set off with our taxi driver, Martin, who was a friendly chap. We were enjoying our drive out on roads less travelled by buses when Martin started to drive in an alarming way. His tailgating and attack driving style with oncoming vehicles soon had me rather nervous, and reasoning it was better to look out the side window then where we were headed. I was having flashbacks to years ago when I was on holidays with a bunch of my good mates in Thailand. It was during that trip we coined the phrase “pseudo laning’ to describe the Thai penchant for driving wherever the hell they liked on the road. We had a particularly hairy experience one night where I still remember us all screaming as our taxi driver pulled out in the dark into on coming traffic and a hapless motorcyclist went flying off the side of the road in an effort to avoid our car. We still don’t know whether he made it…

However, I digress. Due to Martin’s driving I darted a worried glance Damien’s way and he affirmed my feelings, by demonstrating his: dramatically grabbing onto the seat in front with vigour and might I add a facial to match. Thank goodness Damien had the sense to speak up and expressed to Martin that we were in no hurry and could he slow down please. Mercifully, he did. From there (minus the occasional lapses of hooning) Martin rectified his driving and we were able to take in the sights of the countryside as night fell.

Martin had obviously never been to Sungai Timun, so as we inched closer we had to go down a few dead end dirt tracks into the bush. We asked a few people conveniently hanging out on the side of the road for directions, until serendipitously we stopped to ask a lady selling food at a small road side stall and funnily enough it was her own son who was waiting for us and she pointed us in the right direction.

We arrived in the little kampung (village) of Sungai Timun and soon were suited up in life jackets and on the river. The ride in the tinny was in itself so lovely to me. The smell of the tropical night air filled my nostrils and had me transported into happy memories of holidays in Northern NSW. I always marvel at the power of our sense of smell to evoke such strong feelings and emotions which are memories linked purely to that particular scent. When I have one of those “smell” related memories I want to keep inhaling it to conjure up the feeling it evokes as it is so much more whole than a visual recollection alone. It’s like when you first awake and you are in the half sleep half awake phase and you are holding onto the image and feeling of the dream you just had…you know it is fleeting but it is so real and vivid in that moment. Those olfactory memories are like that to me….

It’s hard to put down in words how happy and content I felt being surrounded by the beautiful shapes of the trees that silhouetted the banks and the sound of the insects as they filled the night air but truly, I live for this stuff… nature is always where I am happiest and I was glad to finally be immersed in it here in Malaysia.

To top off what was already a special journey we did get to see those little fireflies. They hung in masses on various trees and lit them up like so many little blinking fairy lights. Damien commented that they were like little Tinkerbells, such a lovely way to describe it. Our boat driver kindly nudged our tinny close to a few of the trees and cut the engine so we could quietly sit beneath them as they floated, flashing their little bums at us. I stood up on the boat and caught one in my hand and Martin shone his torch so I could take a closer look. Wow. Such a wee snip of a thing to put out such a pretty light. One fell on my shoulder and blinked away at me. Ah the simple happiness of that moment 😀

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and we worked our way back up the river to the kampung, but not before our eagle-eyed guide (how did he spot it in the dark???) shone his torch on the bank and putted us in closer to see a baby croc.

We questioned him via Martin (who also served as our translator on the night) how big the crocs are in this river and we were told a staggering 20 ft. Yikes! Hands firmly inside the boat now!

Needless to say we were more than happy with the outcome of all our hard work to find a means to get there. The hard worked for wins are often the best, aren’t they? I felt a little like a trailblazer considering no one else in Melaka seemed to know about these little sparkly gems.

However, it was not without a little disappointment in that we found out there was a dorm in the village we could have stayed at, and that we could have gone on a crocodile and bird viewing boat ride if we had been able to sort it out. But I don’t want to seem ungrateful for what we had and it is more than enough motivation to return one day now that we know how.

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Return to Melaka

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When I embarked on my solo Asian journey in 2009-2010, Melaka was my first stop after arriving in Singapore. I was drawn by its long and fascinating history as a crossroads of cultures, and was captivated by the distinctive character of its narrow streets and laneways. And the food. And the fellow travellers you can meet along the way.

So when we were planning our shared journey, Melaka was high on the list of places to visit and of course it didn’t disappoint. We have already spent three nights there (I’m currently writing this from a hotel near KL’s airport), and we are about to return for two more nights for a special expedition which will be explained later. Because Kristen has not been to Melaka before we covered some ground I’d already seen, such as the Porto d’Santiago, the church on the hill, and Jonkers Walk night market. We’ve eaten up a storm, with highlights including chicken rice balls, top-shelf Indian at bottom-shelf prices at Selvam, a dim sum breakfast, my favourite chicken satay at Geographer Cafe, and plenty of stick food from the streets.

But the real highlight has been discovering the riverside walk north of the centre which has an amazing series of spray-painted murals on the walls of houses facing the water (many are shown in the slideshow above). It’s not mentioned in the guidebook, and I didn’t wander to this part of town last time; in fact we discovered it mainly because our guesthouse is actually on the riverfront and contained in one of the bemuraled houses. It’s been enchanting to sit outside on the edge of the river in the evening, watching the boats pass by as we read or blog or sort through photos. At some point the call to prayer from a nearby mosque breaks the silence, and when darkness comes waterfalls of tiny lights illuminate the far bank of the river. I’m looking forward to our return…

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TIA

Before our trip to Scandanavia pretty much all of my overseas travel has been concentrated in Asia. So I feel that I have a reasonable handle on the quirks of Asia and have developed a comfort level with all it can present to you.

However, after three weeks in Northern Europe when we arrived on Salang Sayang, Pulau Tioman and we trudged laden with backpacks to the far end of the beach I admit to being somewhat unthrilled with our chosen destination to dethaw. I like to think that perhaps I was suffering from a little jet lag and this was colouring my experience…ask anyone who knows me well…I am not a happy camper when I am tired! But my first impressions as we walked along were, well, this isn’t the travel brochure pictures I was expecting, I mean what’s with that run down piece of so and so there, and what’s with that dilapidated piece of crap there and has anyone heard of a coat of paint???

Anyway, jet lag quickly whisked me away and I pretty much slept through my grumpy introduction to Salang Sayang with the soothing sounds of a monsoonal downpour no less…it’s not all bad, you see.

So I had to admit to myself that I had indeed suffered a little from that old chestnut…culture shock.

Jet lag dealt with, I awoke with my rose-coloured Malaysian sunnies on and all was good in the world again. Suddenly all those little  bits and pieces that were no good yesterday started to seem OK, good even. I mean TIA afterall!  This is why we love it, if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be Asia and it wouldn’t endear itself to me quite as much as it has over the years.

Let me explain TIA. It’s a phrase we have stolen from Leonardo DiCaprio…well, his character in Blood Diamond anyway. Not long before we went on the trip we were watching Blood Diamond and there is a line in the movie where in an effort to explain all that is Africa, his character simply says matter of factly, TIA ‘This is Africa”.

And as I was adjusting to life in Asia again, TIA (This Is Asia) sprung into my mind and I was not at all surprised when without me even mentioning this thought to Damien, a couple of days into island time, he of his own accord casually said TIA in reference to some little oddity we were experiencing and I knew exactly what he meant!

Here’s a few examples of TIA:

  • We were staying in a hillside bungalow with a million dollar view of golden sand and azure waters….but we had to flush the toilet in the good old way…using a bucket. Oh and when I cleaned my teeth my feet always got wet, I realised halfway through the stay that was because the basin had a pipe that emptied straight onto the bathroom floor. TIA.
  • The salt on the restaurant tables, is in fact not salt at all. Careful inspection of the label reveals that it is MSG (with possibly some ‘trace’ elements of salt…but I couldn’t taste it). Even closer inspection of the ingredients label on the pepper uncovers that it too has MSG. WTF? TIA. Consequently, on our brief return to Sydney we purchased some salt to bring with us as we both recalled that (although we had forgot) the other Asian countries also have this love affair with MSG.
  • An off the island example, and not a pleasant one, is when we were waiting at the bus station in Mersing and I spied a table with no one seated at it. Success! As I descended to stake my claim, I soon realised why no one was there…the back end of what was once a kitten was left under the table (in food court area). TIA.
  • We are now staying in Melaka in a lovely little Guest House on the Melaka River. The owners are friendly, the place is clean, quiet and backs onto the Melaka River which is charming in bucket loads….but more about that later. Our room may be basic but it has a MASSIVE bed, air con and our own little balcony – which is actually quite gross…but it’s a balcony.TIA. But on the first day as I arose to greet the morning I went to pull back the curtain to take in the less than salubrious view out onto our balcony and the whole curtain rail came off the wall. TIA. Told the owner and her response was, whilst smiling sweetly of course, “I don’t know how to fix it’. TIA.

There will be ample more of these experiences all the way but all I can say is that I love it. When things are sometimes a little more basic, not so perfect, not always bright and shiny it just seems somehow more fun and dare I say it, more real.

So I’ll step out today and hunt down the next Melakan culinary masterpiece and try to ignore the occasional waft of eau de toilet and marvel at how fine this little slice of Malaysia is.

Categories: food, Malaysia, Melaka, travel | Leave a comment

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