Friday 2 January 2015

Asia Summer Series: Melaka, City of Spice (Part 2)

Over December and January, I've been running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Last week I explored the historical remnants of colonial rule in the Malaysian city of Melaka; now it's time to eat...

Lunch is at Restoran Peranakan within Melaka’s Chinatown.

Its interior is a big airy space decked out with lanterns, framed sepia photographs, and large round tables bearing incongruous red-checked tablecloths.

The food is as flavoursome as promised - including spicy red sauces, chilli chicken, and crunchy fish pieces served with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce.

Other popular Nyonya standards are chicken kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and inchi kabin, a variant of fried chicken.

Given the attractive shop-lined streets of the Chinese quarter, it seems an ideal place for a post-lunch stroll. Turning onto the former Jonker Street, whose Dutch name is still widely used, I pass numerous antique emporiums tucked into small premises.

It’d be easy to spend a few hours here inspecting items and deciding which would look best on the mantelpiece at home, while dickering about the price with the proprietors.

Taking a sharp turn into Jalan Tokong (Temple Street), another narrow curving thoroughfare, I spot the minaret of a mosque up ahead. It’s quite unlike the tapering forms common to its Middle Eastern counterparts, however, looking more like a watchtower with a Chinese-inspired roof.

The call to prayer resounds through the neighbourhood as I step into the nearby Buddhist Xianglin Temple.

It’s an intriguing contrast, listening to the Arabic words as I pass burning joss sticks set in braziers, heading into the temple’s cool interior. An Australian walking into a Buddhist temple in Melaka’s Chinatown while listening to the Muslim call to prayer has to count as multiculturalism personified, I think.

Across the road is the much older Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. Constructed in the 17th century, it’s dedicated to the goddess of mercy Guanyin. There’s a superbly serene atmosphere within, aided by the organic feel of the structure, with its timber ceiling and beams, and the generous use of red and gold in the decor.

My last stop in Melaka is a nod to its first colonial rulers, the Portuguese. Even though they were evicted by the Dutch in 1641, the Portuguese left behind a distinct community of Portuguese-Malay descent, who spoke a unique creole language known as Kristang (from ‘Christian’).

Despite the passing of centuries, Melaka’s Eurasian community has endured, and is centred on Medan Portugis in the city’s east.

When I visit the square on a Saturday afternoon, it’s quiet and nearly empty, but its collection of restaurants and shops are setting up for livelier business later in the evening.

Walking from the square to the waterfront, I stand under a lone palm tree and gaze out over the strait.

I can’t see the island of Sumatra, lying just beyond the horizon.

However, it’s easy to imagine the spice traders of bygone days threading their ships through this body of water, braving pirates and treacherous weather in order to be the first to land their cargoes in far-flung ports.

There’s something attractive about Melaka, I decide, centred on the way it reflects Malaysia’s distinctive blend of cultures, cuisines and languages.

Though it’s a tourism drawcard rather than a spice port today, the city retains the complex flavour of its convoluted history.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.

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