Friday, November 30, 2012

Melaka, Malaysia – Yargh!

We rolled into Melaka, Malaysia with Chalain, Chris and Dan, just in time for Malaysia to remind us that it is in fact monsoon season. The gang stuck around for a night, but soon, had to go back to Yangon, Burma to go back to work where they are employed at an international school leaving us to explore the port town ourselves.

Melaka is a smaller city, but has a huge history as the center of a maritime power in their own right with a modern claim-to-fame as a pirate stopover in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The hostel was set in the middle of Chinatown, which had a plethora of shops and whatnot, including hipster-ish t-shirts shop.
The main Chinatown district was dominated by “Jonker’s Walk,” which had many shops, and presented us with a classic conundrum.
Food is always one of the best parts about new places, with “Baba Nonya” cuisine being a feature in Melaka. “Baba Nonya” is the name of the culture that was birthed when Chinese laborers cane to Melaka and intermarried with Malay women.
We always want to try the new foods, but there’s a fine line between being adventurous and trying the local foods and eating something that we know we don’t have the stomach for.
For example, Jojo’s Patthai in Bangkok is clean, good and we know we’re going to get something tasty and satisfying. I’ve also seen people chopping up large pieces of warm meat on pieces of cardboard that are sitting on the sidewalk. We’re going to avoid that one…
There were two restaurants on Jonker’s Walk that personified this dichotomy, Geographers Cafe and Famosa Chicken Rice Balls.
Geographers came highly recommended in the Rough Guide book we’ve been using, while Famosa came highly recommended by the slough of locals sitting at the table.
Both of them had very traditional advertisements, intended to draw in very different crowds. Famosa had small, cold, roasted chickens hanging on meat-hooks in a glass case at the entrance while Geographer’s was proud to offer Guinness on tap.
The Geographer’s Cafe is in a two story building with an outdoor patio. It was fully air-conditioned and decorated kind with plenty of wood and earth tones. Flat screen televisions rotated through professional pictures of the different dishes, with their names written in Malay and English. The food was good and they had some fresh rolls, which is one of Leslie’s favorites. It was a very modern restaurant and would have fit in quite well in Seattle.
Famosa Chicken Rice Balls, which would have stuck out like a sore thumb, assuming it wasn’t shut down by the health inspector for hanging room-temperature, cooked chicken hanging in the store window. Nevertheless, in we went to try a new experience.
This was a one-story restaurant with a sprawling layout and two “kitchens”. The big one in back took care of most of the prep-work and major cooking. I use the word “kitchen” to describe the front space connected to the cashier stand by the front door for lack of a better word, but it’s not really accurate. It contained a cash register, full roasted chickens hanging from meat hooks and a machine that pumped out rice balls. Half-dozen teenagers laughed and giggled while putting together orders. It seemed a little bit like a very Malaysian take on a 1950s diner.
There were no small tables, with most being for about eight. The people who were already sitting had ordered communal food.
We sat at one of the tables and soon had a teenager come over and take our order; six rice balls and half a chicken. It was a small order, but we thought that was smart with an unknown food.
I walked over to a small newspaper clipping on the wall and learned that Famosa had four restaurants and was known for their new-fangled machine that could crank out 50 rice balls a minute in a more sanitary manner than the traditional hand-rolled method.
Soon, the food came back. The rice balls were made out of milled rice that had been formed into pieces the size of a golf ball, they were gelatinous and reminded me of dumplings. They had little flavor to themselves. Fortunately, a gravy-boat like thing of red chili sauce accompanied them, which was good, but spicy.
The chicken had been de-boned, but was still quite identifiable as a bird, complete with light meat, dark meat and skin. It had been chopped into bite-sized pieces, so was easy to eat.
This is the part where I’d love to tell you it was great, but it wasn’t. It was bland rice balls and chicken that was luke-warm at best. The sauce was good, but sauce alone does not make a meal.
Towards the end of our meal, we looked over and saw one of the weirdest looking deserts I’ve ever seen.
It was a silver bowl, piled high with ice-looking things and topped with green-gelatinous-worm looking things and red beans.
We ordered the “cendol” and I’m proud to say that I can tell you this was actually really good. We didn’t know much about what was in it at the time, but later learned that the basics are shaved ice and coconut milk. There’s a big pile of that topped with the green-worm things, that are rice-gelatin and the obvious red beans. The entire thing is then smothered in palm sugar.
The cendol was great, but it wasn’t very filling, and we didn’t want to order more chicken rice balls. Fortunately, Geographer’s is only two blocks away, and they have fresh rolls… and Guinness on tap.

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