MALACCA, Aug 7 — There is more to Malacca than Jonker Walk though the hordes of tourists swarming the street (officially known as Jalan Hang Jebat) may convince you otherwise. The trick in exploring more of this Unesco World Heritage site’s culinary history and culture is to get out of the city centre.
Of course, this is Malacca, not the largest city in Malaysia by any measure, so leaving its centre, even with all those one-way roads jammed with tour buses, doesn’t really take more than 10 to 15 minutes. Head northwest of Jonker Walk to Tranquerah, an old neighbourhood built up along the entire stretch of Jalan Tengkera.
Tranquerah (or Tengkera as it’s known in Malay) used to be an important defence rampart for the city during the Portuguese era between 1511 and 1641. Its name is believed to be derived from the Spanish word tranquera meaning “gate”, which was what it was.
Today, Tranquerah isn’t a military outpost for European colonists but an area frequented by locals in the know for authentic and affordable Malaccan food, especially Peranakan fare.
Nearly every stall, shop or restaurant is situated right by the main road, so nothing is particularly hard to locate... other than parking, that is. (Good luck with finding some on the weekends; most folks just leave their vehicles by the roadside.)
If you’re an early riser, try the prawn cracker and fish ball noodles — a Tranquerah specialty — at Hoo Khiew, directly opposite the Malacca Badminton Association building. The shop is located inside a single-storey house; the front yard doubles as the dining area with the ubiquitous plastic tables and chairs.
The proprietor cooks the noodles at a stationary pushcart and, despite the large volume of orders, doesn’t hurry yet never forgets a single bowl, whatever the mix of ingredients.
As for the noodles, you have three options — koay teow (flat rice noodles), bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and yellow noodles. Most patrons opt for the koay teow.
The highlight, of course, is the generous topping of crunchy deep-fried prawn crackers and bouncy fish balls. These are even better once they start soaking into the savoury broth. (Remember, Malaccans like their food a tad saltier than elsewhere in Malaysia.)
In lieu of typical garnishes for soup noodles such as chopped spring onions and fresh bean sprouts, Hoo Khiew uses plenty of crispy fried shallots to impart a greasy punch of umami goodness to every bowl. A spoonful of cili padi doused in soy sauce is a must-have condiment. (Malaccans love it spicy too.)
If you’re a light eater, ask for a small portion; if you have a healthy appetite, go for a large portion with “extra ingredients”, which is simply more of the addictive prawn crackers and fish balls. Wash it all down with home-brewed herbal drinks or barley water.
For a leisurely lunch, you can’t go wrong with 486 Baba Low, which offers Malaccan-style Peranakan dishes in a partly open-air shop next to a house. Here you can enjoy alfresco dining and carefree conversations beneath a green canopy; the trees invite breezes, a boon given the increasingly hot weather in Malacca.
KL-ites might be familiar with its sister outlets in Lorong Kurau (Baba Low Bangsar) and Jalan Abdullah (Straits Food Company), but there’s nothing like visiting the original. Owned by Victor Low, a familiar face with Bangsar residents, his first shop in Malacca (located at 486, Jalan Tengkera, hence its name) is more bare-bones but that’s part of its fuss-free charm.
486 Baba Low has a more stripped-down menu than its KL counterparts — no ikan gerang asam (fish in tamarind chilli gravy) and ayam goreng kunyit (turmeric fried chicken), for example — but signature dishes such as their bestselling Nyonya laksa are present.
Beneath the mound of julienned cucumber, shrimp, fish balls and cockles is a mildly spicy coconut milk gravy that is a nostalgic walk down memory lane for any Malaccan boy or girl. A mix of yellow noodles and mee hoon works best here, I find.
There is also pai tee, a traditional Peranakan snack of crispy “top hats” stuffed with strips of omelette, julienned vegetables, and fried shallots. The nasi lemak comes with strands of kangkung (water spinach), a quintessential Malaccan addition. Mee siam is served with a dollop of spicy-sweet sambal; all it needs is a squeeze of lime before you begin.
Wash it all down with a mug of Malaccan kopi or kopi O, and on your way out, consider some of the Nyonya kuih in the baskets at the counter for your afternoon tea later. Their apam balik is soft and moist, redolent with the fragrance of gula Melaka (palm sugar) and santan (coconut cream).
Looking for more choices for your teatime treats? Just cross the main road to Baba Charlie Nyonya Cake, almost directly opposite, albeit hidden in a narrow alley. There are plenty of signs showing the way to the shop via a row of old, wooden houses.
Upon entering the shop, there is a section where all the kuih-muih are displayed. Further inside is their kitchen, where you may observe workers busy with all the food prep and cooking.
In the display section, a worker sorts different kuih into their respective trays. It’s self-service here, so you just need to grab a plastic basket and fill it up with your kuih of choice then join the queue to pay at the counter.
There are the easily recognisable curry puffs, kuih koci wrapped in banana leaves and ang koo kuih, in shades of red, black and green. More unusual is the lepat kacang, which is glutinous rice and black-eyed beans wrapped in triangular packets using daun palas (fan palm leaves). These leaves are harder to source nowadays, so it’s not often one sees this kuih elsewhere.
Honestly, the assortment of Nyonya kuih packed and ready for takeaway purchase is astounding. Their names — kuih abu sagu, kuih bingka ubi, kuih talam, pulut inti, rempah udang — are enough to whet one’s appetite. The rempah udang is very addictive; this cylinder of steamed glutinous rice is filled with an aromatic blend of dry-fried shrimps and grated coconut.
Besides these best-eaten-fresh Nyonya kuih, the shop sells various cookies, pineapple tarts and homemade kaya too. These can keep for longer, though one suspects it’d be quite a challenge not to finish the entire lot at one go. Baba Charlie also sets up stalls at various pasar malam (night markets) throughout Malacca during the week, so watch out for their sign if you happen to drop by one.
Come evening and a special treat becomes available in Tranquerah. Putu Piring Tengkera, located on the main road next to the Sports Toto shop, draws customers from as far as Singapore and Penang. Now, this snack isn’t exactly a rarity — it’s found at any half-decent pasar malam — but there’s something about how this middle-aged husband-and-wife team makes it.
Mr and Mrs Pang spend a good 12 hours a day preparing all the ingredients to ensure only the freshest are used. (This explains why they only start making the putu piring for sale at 6pm.) The results speak for themselves — the humble rice cakes usually sell out in four hours or less!
Now, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything complicated about it. After all, there are only three ingredients — rice flour, gula Melaka and coconut — so how hard can it be? Ah, but to make putu piring that has your eyes rolling back in ecstasy, now that takes some years of practice to perfect.
Baba Pang (as Mr Pang is fondly called) first fills the piring (metal saucers) with rice flour and gula Melaka, before adding a second layer of rice flour. Look closely and you’ll notice he gently rounds off the top layer as lightly as he can, taking care not to press it down hard so as to trap as much air as possible.
This makes all the difference between a fluffy, light-as-a-cloud putu piring and a mediocre one, hard as a puck. These raw putu cakes are now ready to be placed on the steamer, which is where his wife, Nyonya Lian, comes in.
Using conical steamers, she has a practised rhythm of flipping over each piring to check which is cooked and which needs just a a second or two more. Once ready, she transfers them to squares of banana leaf already covered with a light layer of shredded young coconut.
Honour all their hard work by enjoying your putu piring while it’s still hot — there’s nothing quite like biting into this airy cake, tasting the savoury coconut and the almost-liquid gula Melaka bursting in your mouth like nuggets of caramel gold.
This, you may tell yourself, is the true taste of Tranquerah.
Hoo Khiew Prawn Cracker Noodles
345, Jalan Tengkera, Malacca
Open daily 6am-2pm
486 Baba Low
486, Jalan Tengkera, Malacca
Open daily 7:30am-4pm (except Fri closed)
Tel: 06-283 1762
Baba Charlie Nyonya Cake
72, Lorong Tengkera Pantai 2C, Kampung Tengkera Pantai Dua, Malacca
Open daily 10am-3pm (except Thu closed)
Tel: 019-666 2907 / 06-284 7209
Putu Piring Tengkera
252, Jalan Tengkera, Malacca
Open daily 6pm-10pm (except Sun closed)
Tel: 06-282 1505