Posh spice in Malaysia

Penang

Once a pivotal part of the fabled spice route to India, Malaysia’s food was always destined to become an exotic affair. Now, modern Malaysia shines a light on its culinary heritage adding spicy sparkle to everything from hawker food to haute cuisine.

MALACCA - Trading Up

Situated mid-way between India and China and gateway to the Indian Ocean, it took the fabulously rich spice trade that passed through the Straits of Malacca to transform this once obscure fishing village into a vital trading center linking East and West and with the flow of spices came the influx of people.

From 1511 until Malaysia claimed independence in 1957, the mighty European trading powers of Portugual, Holland and England took it in turns to rule this mini-empire’s coveted monopoly of the exotic spice trade.   Strolling the waterfront that overlooks the busy Straits of Malacca, we encounter a community of direct descendants from the Portuguese who came here on a Man-of-War in 1511.

A settlement of 3,000, they still speak a 16th century Portuguese dialect passed down through the generations and at the nearby Sea Terrace restaurant, authentic Portuguese seafood, chilli crab and simply prepared locally caught fish are cooked to family recipes and served nightly to diners keen for a taste of living history.

Sliced & Diced

A small town of 850,000, Malacca slices and dices its cultural diversity of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Dutch and Portuguese through its shared love of food.   While Chinese food can be mild in flavour, the robust blend of Indian spices in Malaccan cooking gives the taste buds a workout and no-one does it better than the Baba-Nyonyas, descendents of the original Straits Chinese traders.

Nonya takes its name from ‘Chinese married woman” and charming Jonker Street is lined with historic shophouses, many specializing in spicy Baba-Nyonya cuisine.

Jonkers Melaka’s sunny courtyard is a favourite lunch spot for Otak-Otak, a mix of fish meat, coconut milk, shrimp paste, lemongrass and spices known locally as ‘brains’.

Don’t miss Jonker 88’s specialty, the crunchy Ah Mah fish cakes made with fresh mackerel, tapioca starch and egg white, nicely balanced by sliced cucumber and tomato.

Sweet pineapple tarts are everywhere but true Nonya tarts are open-faced, buttery and delicious.  Chicken rice balls are the Malaccan specialty and at vibrant Famosa Chicken Rice Ball restaurant on the corner of Hang Kasturi and Jonker Streets, chickens get an even tan on the rotisserie and the restaurant hums with a constant turnover of people.

Overlooking the Malacca River on Lorong Hang Jebat, a shed constructed in 1868 to collect taxes from traders landing their goods is now Harper’s restaurant and lounge, an airy haunt and popular night spot.

PENANG – Spice of Life

Connected to mainland Malaysia by Penang Bridge, a 13 kilometre umbilical cord over the Straits of Malacca, the resort island of Penang was the most popular of the legendary Spice Islands on one of the world’s most important sea routes.

Retaining a timeless ambience, Penang’s capital George Town, named for England’s King George III, is an Asian melting pot underpinned by adventurers, merchants, artists and writers.

Pull up a Bentwood chair at any Kedai Kopi, corner coffee shop, and you’ll sink your teeth into Penang’s edible soul.   The coffee is hot and strong and the selection of pastries include local Chinese favourite Kuih Tayap, crepes filled with coconut and sugar and the addictive Yu Char Kuih, a crispy savoury dough fritter.  Wandering its  laneways, it seems that one half of Penang is cooking for the other half queuing at hawker stalls.

Kerbside cuisine includes Naan bread topped with spicy chicken, spiky pineapples, sweet yellow mangosteens and yam sandwiches.

I’m fascinated by the choice of spices that bring food to life, the fragrance and the colour that create subtle taste differences whether flavouring the dish or preserving the food.  We watch hungry school kids line up at old tricycles to buy freshly baked bread spread with coconut jam for a few cents before exploring Penang Road’s artful boutiques selling local crafts, fashion, accessories and yes, more food.

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