Dine with the devil in Malaysia
Malaysia’s small city state of Melaka holds historic significance because it was one of the most important trading ports in South East Asia. Known as the ‘Emporium of the East’, Old Melaka is an intriguing place to wander the narrow streets and absorb the atmosphere of the old town with its many international influences. It’s here that Tony Colebatch was on a special mission, but would his efforts to taste a wicked local meal be rewarded?…
“Malacca! Even in its revised modern spelling of Melaka, the name conjures up visions of history and romance in the exotic East, of piracy, of a series of colonial regimes that have come and gone, leaving their influence not only in the history books but also in the physical and behavioural features of the present day Melaka. Even the cuisine of Melaka reflects these varied influences.
In the 15th century, the Malay Sultan married a Chinese princess, who arrived with a sizeable retinue, who in turn intermarried with the local courtiers, creating the proud culture of the Nyonya, or Peranakan, a blend of Chinese and Malay. This culture spawned one of Melaka’s best-known dishes, a blend of Chinese noodle soup and Malay curry called Laksa!
But my interest lay in another cultural influence. For years I had cooked a dish with the irresistible name of Malaccan Devil’s Curry, also a blended dish. This is a Malay curry with many Portuguese ingredients, a rich, flavoursome dish with a full-bodied mouthwatering sauce that never fails to delight at table. A community of Portuguese descendants still lives there, so I hoped to taste it in its original form, and pick up some tips from the locals so I could make it better.
Arriving and checking into our hotel, we became aware that it was lunchtime and started walking down the narrow streets of the old town in search of exotic delicacies. Fortunately the Restoran Peranakan appeared in front of us, so we poured eagerly into the centuries-old restored Chinese residence, where our choice from the extensive menu turned out to be the best Nyonya meal we had ever enjoyed. In addition the foyer was a virtual museum of priceless Chinese antique furniture which demanded admiration. However several more days of exploration failed to show up a devils curry, and we turned to our knowledgeable and worldly waiter, Maya, for assistance. He slowly rolled his eyes to the ceiling and in funereal tones said that, sadly, true Malaccan Devil’s Curry was now very difficult to find in Melaka. Wishing us luck, he scribbled a few addresses on a paper napkin, with, one sensed, more hope than trust that our quest would be rewarded.
After a few more failures, we headed to the outer suburban Portuguese settlement, where a cluster of waterfront restaurants held some promise of our Holy Grail. The first of these did indeed have it on their menu, but after we had ordered, the maitre d’ approached us, and in a scene worthy of Fawlty Towers told us it was unavailable. A tour of the other eateries was equally fruitless – until we reached the last, where a beaming maternal figure answered our prayer.
We should have listened to Maya! It was a thin insipid version of the dish of which I had so long dreamed. Fortunately, as further travels around Malaysia revealed, traditional dishes are returning to many menus and a highlight was dining at Restoran Peranakan on Jalan Tun Tan, where first class Nyonya food can be found.”
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