MALACCA, July 19 — My nephew and nieces have never been to a real market, a true Malaysian pasar, and to be honest, I don’t blame them. I’ve only visited one a few times in my youth, following my father as he scouted for the freshest petai (stink beans) or some collagen-rich pork trotters for my mother to make her famous zhu jiao cu (vinegared pork trotters).
Odd, now that I think of it, but it was always the husbands who went to the market in Malacca when I was growing up, never their wives, though I took it as domestic gospel at the time.
Peranakan cookbook author Debbie Teoh bucks this trend: She comes from a long line of Nyonyas who deftly navigate the busiest pasar for the best ingredients before transforming them into delectable dishes in the kitchen once home.
So when I decide to explore the biggest market in my hometown, the Pasar Besar Melaka at Taman Melaka City Square, it’s Debbie I turn to for expert guidance. There’s no better pasar companion than a lady who can tell you which stall sells authentic gula Melaka and how to select a good buah keluak (Indonesian black nut).
When we arrive at the Pasar Besar Melaka at 8am, the market is already bustling with early morning shoppers. The front part of the market is where stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables are situated. In the middle section are rows of shuttered shop lots that sell dry goods such as gula Melaka, dried seafood, sauces, and even local candy such as dodol (the Malaccan variety is toffee-like and flavoured with durian).
The rear portion of the market is considered the wet market where the fishmongers and butchers reign. Upstairs, there are stalls selling clothes and souvenirs, and a food court that does a roaring breakfast trade.
Our first stop is at Stall No. RK24 in the dry goods section. Owner Rubiah Wahab offers all manner of sauces, condiments and even shredded coconut candy. But Debbie is here for one thing only – Kak Rubiah’s tantalising gula Melaka.
“I only buy gula Melaka from Kak Rubiah,” says Debbie. “While other stalls may sell so-called gula Melaka that has been heavily doctored with processed sugar, here is the real thing. See how soft it is and how easily it crumbles under my thumb’s pressure? The poorer quality stuff is very hard; you can barely grate it even with a sharp knife!”
Next Debbie brings me to Stall No. RK31 run by the affable Soh Kee Guan. Madam Soh has been selling dry goods for years, and many regulars take the trouble to visit her shop lot to get anything from ikan bilis to farm-fresh eggs.
This is where Debbie comes to get buah keluak to make her famous Peranakan dish, ayam buah keluak. She shares, “Buah keluak is never cheap as the seeds need to be harvested from wild trees that take years to mature. Here, it costs about RM16 for 20 pieces; other stalls may charge even more!”
Debbie shows me how to select a good buah keluak: Weigh each nut in the palm of your hand; it should feel heavy and not hollow. If the kernel of the nut is pale or white in colour when you remove it from the shell, throw it away as it has turned bad.
“These days, you can get buah keluak that are already washed or shelled,” says Debbie. “But I feel it’s better to buy them whole, in their shells, even with all the grime and dust. At least this way you know they are fresh; you can always wash the dirt away yourself.”
That last step should be requisite anyway as the fresh buah keluak seeds are naturally toxic and need to be prepared properly — soaking in water for at least three days is the tradition — before use in cooking. Debbie notes, “Everyone is always complaining Peranakan dishes using buah keluak are so expensive — now you know why! The ingredient itself is costly and its preparation very labour-intensive.”
Besides buah keluak, other typical ingredients needed for Peranakan cooking include light and dark soy sauces (“Look for Cap Lembu,” advises Debbie), cili Boh (dried chilli paste), and taucheo (fermented bean paste) used in the popular babi pongteh (braised pork and potato stew).
Another quintessential Malaccan ingredient is the fish balls used in a local noodle dish called yee kiao mee. Besides bouncy fish balls and slivers of foo chuk (bean curd skin rolls), there is an often times terrifyingly orange sliced fish cake that must be added to the yellow noodles for the dish to qualify as true yee kiao.
Debbie brings me to a stall that sells nothing but fish balls of all shapes and sizes, made from different types of fish, shrimp and even squid. She spots the brightly orange yee kiao fish balls, more oblong in shape than spherical, and points to them excitedly.
“The stall owners will always pass you a pair of tongs so you can choose the pieces you want,” says Debbie. “I think they know how fussy we Nyonya cooks are; we want only the best!”
Even when leaving the pasar, there are treats to entice market-goers. At the main entrance, a young woman sits with a round tray of plastic bags, each filled with dark brown legumes. These are called jering in Malay, and I’ve not really seen them elsewhere outside of Malacca.
“We love eating them at home,” says Debbie. “You eat it raw, accompanied by freshly grated coconut.”
Opposite the jering vendor, an old man is methodically slicing some sengkuang (jicama) for the tauhu bakar (grilled stuffed tofu) he’s selling. There is an impressive line of people waiting patiently for their turn to order.
Even without Debbie’s recommendation, I know his tauhu bakar must be good; you can always judge by the temperament of the customers even when the queue is long. When in a pasar, do as the pasar goers do, yes?
I join the line, of course.