I’ve already said that I went to Singapore to eat, but the broader truth is that I came to Asia to eat. I thought knew before I arrived what to expect from Thailand, but I had no idea what I’d find elsewhere. It turns out that one of the many awesome surprises of Malaysia was the incredible food.
Melaka was the second stop on my itinerary and an early introduction to Malaysian cuisine, and I was on a mission to get real food not found in guidebooks or at the Jonker Street stalls on that cater to tourists. Melaka is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and much of the reading I did before I arrived was concern over the commercialization of the city to the point that there’s a Hard Rock Cafe going in amid some of the most historically significant buildings. So I had to work a little bit harder, but I think I mostly succeeded in this endeavor.
My first breakfast was at Long Fatt, a Chinese restaurant located in the historic district just a few blocks from my guesthouse. It’s a nondescript shophouse owned and run by a family, and I met father, son, and grandson in the time I spent there. They told me that they serve Chinese food at its simplest, and I think that’s exactly how I would describe it.
To order, decide whether you’d like rice or noodles and then how many small plates of meat, fish, and vegetables you can handle.
Had I spent more time in Melaka (and had fewer options for food), I certainly would have gone back to Long Fatt. Like many restaurants in SE Asia, they open in the morning until the food runs out, so go early!
I knew I had to try Nyonya cuisine, a fusion of Malay and Chinese food specific to Melaka thanks to the city’s position as a trading center. I decided on Nyonya Makko — a real, sit-down restaurant! — because I’d read a lot of positive reviews in books and on blogs. It did not disappoint.
Makko is famous for its lemak nanas udang — prawns and pineapple in a coconut curry sauce served over rice. Have you ever tried to peel head-on shrimp that is already drenched in coconut milk? It is messy, to say the least.
I also ordered belacan four angled beans flavored with spicy chili-based sambal.
And for dessert, a must-try on any trip to Malaysia: cendol. This restaurant supposedly serves one of the best cendols in Melaka, and that’s probably true because I really can’t imagine anything more amazing. Cendol is shaved ice served over sweet red beans and green gelatin and topped with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. It looks and sounds a little absurd, but it is one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten so far and totally perfect for anyone with a sweet tooth. I tried another version in Penang and was really disappointed when I compared it with Makko’s dish.
Day #2 in Melaka was full of adventures to roadside food stalls. I’ve learned that eating in Asia means adjusting expectations in terms of appearance and sanitation — but you’ll be richly rewarded if you can get over these hurdles.
I got up early, borrowed a bike from my guesthouse., and rode out of town to a bustling stand that serves just one thing: mee goreng,which is one of Malaysia’s many fried noodle dishes.
I’d done some research about how ordering worked, and I knew to grab a plate of fried eggs and find a table, at which point waiters would bring my drink and serve my main dish. There were very few seats available when I arrived, so I pulled up a chair at a table with three men. We chatted a bit, and they watched pretty intently when I finally got my noodles to see how well I handled the spice. I deduced from their meals that you mix the fried egg, sambal, cucumber, and noodles all together, and it’s best with a side of tea or coffee.
At 1.50 RM, breakfast was about $0.50 — but the guys I was sitting with very kindly paid for my meal before I even knew what was happening. The stall, which to my knowledge doesn’t have a name, was completely packed, and like Long Fatt, they stay open only until the food runs out. When I rode by around 2 pm, it was boarded up.
Later in the afternoon, after some sightseeing, lots of cycling, and a few kiwi smoothies, I attempted to find a stall that specializes in sweet potato donuts. The thing about roadside stands it that they don’t necessarily have names or addresses, and you probably wouldn’t explore them if you didn’t know where you were going or what type of food you were looking for. My donut adventure was long and complex — no one I asked could give me directions to Kuih Keria Antarabangsa — but the search was completely worth it.
Kuih keria seems to be another Melaka-specific dish, and these donuts are special because they’re cooked in palm sugar. They’re not sweet and sticky like Dunkin or Krispy Kreme — they’re more dense and rich and have a crunchy shell thanks to the sugar.
But perhaps my favorite moment in Melaka was a trip to a local night market with a group of people staying at my guesthouse. We commandeered all the bikes available at Jalan Jalan and rode about 20 minutes outside of the town center to a market that I certainly never would have found without the help of someone local. We were the only Westerners there, so I would guess that it’s not the kind of place that’s on the tourist maps or in the guidebooks.
I had to wander up and down a few times before I could decide what to eat, and in the end I sampled nearly everything.
Because it was a market (and market food is inherently cheap) and I was able to share dishes with others, I ate like a king for just 6 RM (about $2). I checked several Malay dishes off my must-try list, including pohpiah, which is like an egg roll; putu pirig, a rice flour steamed dumpling filled with brown sugar and topped with coconut; kuay tiaw kerang, a fried noodle dish; Malay pancakes filled with peanuts; and sugarcane juice.
I think the moral of the story here is that Malaysia should be on every foodie’s destination list.
Also, it’s 100 percent worth the effort to find spots that are outside Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, and bonus points if you’re willing pull off on the side of the road to try the kinds of tiny stalls that you wouldn’t even blink at when home. The locals who run and eat at these spots are wonderful and can definitely teach you a few things.
Note: A lot of credit to Eating Asia for the ideas for great places to seek out in Melaka and throughout the region!