“Would you like to come to my house and meet my monkey?” No, not the dodgiest chat-up line ever heard but a genuine offer from Ishmail, the taxi driver who had just picked us up on the train platform at Melacca station. Never ones to decline such exciting offers, John and I laughingly accepted his kind invitation. Ishmail smiled happily as the car swung out into the traffic. “Excellent, you’ll meet my wife too – she’ll make tea. And maybe you can buy some of my whiskey as well”.
After the visit to Ishmail’s house, where the monkey was aggressive and the wife startled to say the least at us descending on her, we politely declined the loosely named whiskey and were delivered to Hotel Puri in the heritage quarter of Malaysia’s former spice trade capital – a Peranaken house with impressive mosaic floors, the best breakfast in town and a resident flock of swallows in a room next to the courtyard garden. Crumbling cornices and humidity stained walls abounded on the colonial buildings surrounding the hotel and the sense of atmosphere combined with the heady aromas transported us back to the area’s heyday.
For us, a big part of every trip is the food and Melacca’s Nyona and Peranaken cuisines are now at the top of our favourites list. Highlights in a trip crammed with delicious flavours were the transparent spring rolls – no resemblance at all to the greasy, deep-fried offerings served up in so many English restaurants – and candlenut chicken, which fell off the bone into the spicy, fragrant tomato sauce surrounding it. Cendol, the local dessert, consisted of green jelly worms floating in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar, with a few red beans thrown in for good measure. It was sweet, savoury and glutinous – a little bit strange but nice, and very moreish.
After stuffing ourselves with these delicious morsels at Nancy’s Kitchen we ventured round the corner into Jonker Street – the heart of the city’s Chinatown where you can find some of the best examples of heritage architecture. Crammed full of boutiques, antique shops and art galleries, it’s also home to the night market where the many stalls selling street food mean the air is thick with the scents of the temptations on offer. Music throbs in the background and the trishaws get dressed up for the occasion in garlands and fairy lights. The only thing you can do is eat, drink and be merry.
Knowing that we couldn’t spend the whole time just eating, we did visit the ruins of Castle Porta di Santiago and the Baba Nyona Heritage museum, which takes you back in time to the 19th century life that was lived in the house. But mainly we ate. Our final evening’s culinary adventure saw us cooking fish, meat and vegetables in a boiling cauldron of satay sauce in the middle of the table, while getting laughed at by the locals as they didn’t appear to get too many tourists venturing into their little back-street cafe.