Monday, 4 July 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 2

Wandering towards another junction at Jalan Hang Kasturi where the A' Famosa Chicken Rice Ball Restaurant was located, I spotted a familiar sign and the miles we'd travelled seemed to have vanished.

No way that's an Inside Scoop sign!

Yes way. The independent ice-cream company's spreading its wings

So it appears that the KL-based independent ice-cream enterprise has joined the invading hordes that descended upon modern-day Melaka, itching to take advantage of the endless flow of foot traffic from visitors. We would later encounter an outpost of Sangkaya, another start-up and coconut ice-cream outfit from the Malaysian capital.

We patronised neither. It didn't feel right somehow.

Instead, the ladies (all three) browsed around one of the shops that sold prepacked local goods with the usual marked-up prices: coffee, biscuits, cencaluk, sambal, pineapple tarts, durian tarts and the like. They also sampled a kind of seaweed jelly, the "pour into hot water and mix" variety. Again, not cheap for the portions each packet produced.

A queue in front of a shoplot - and the heat - drew us in. At Kedai Aku Dan Dia, an elderly gentleman was plopping handfuls of bright green balls of flour into a pot of simmering water. In a pastic container, more such balls were being rolled around in shaved coconut.

We'd found an onde-onde vendor, sited at 25, Jalan Hang Kasturi. Also called (appropriately) buah Melaka, these grape-sized, shaved coconut-covered balls of glutinious rice flour held shavings of brown, sweet and smoky gula Melaka. The green came from the extract of the pandan (screwpine) leaf, touted by some as this country's equivalent of vanilla.

("Appropriately, because buah Melaka can also mean the Indian gooseberry, which is greenish in colour.)

Outside Kedai Aku dan Dia, where perhaps the best onde-onde
or buah Melaka can be had

Unfortunately for us, the last of the current batch was sold. Well, not all. One little fellow remained in the container. The vendor offered us the lone onde-onde, which Sam took up.

Then, for some reason, she lost her grip on the thing. It was as if it was trying to escape, like a fleeing Mexican drug lord.

A few close calls later, my gaze fell onto her upturned fist. My gut clenched with the assumption that it was empty, but her hand was occupied. With a shout or two of triumph, she popped the slippery onde-onde into her mouth.

"Mmm~! So good," Sam moaned as she chewed. I think the struggle made it even tastier.

The vendor's kind gesture assured our return to the shop, some fifteen minutes later, where we bought two bags or ten pieces for RM4. However, the girls only finished one bag, leaving me with another. The contents were still hot, so I let them be.

While waiting for the next batch of onde-onde, we looked around. Some of the shops we browsed included The Daily Fix, located inside another of the refurbished old houses in the neighbourhood.

The front housed a knick-knack shop, selling things that included odd pieces of wood, each for massaging specific parts of the body. Some of these massage aids had "suggestive" shapes; others would feel right at home in a ninja's utility belt. On the scene were some expensive pillows, covered in casings styled after sacks of flour, sugar or rice of yore.

"Why on earth would anyone want these?" I asked.

"They're very nice," Sam said. "They look authentic."

"Yes, when you want to pretend you're a dockhand, carrying these around and sleeping on it after a hard day's work."

Trust hipsters and the Gen-Y to hip up the rough and gritty.

Goodness gracious, green balls of sweetness!

The café took up part of the courtyard and the back half of the property. It sported the familiar Instagrammable rustic chic shared by many other establishments of its ilk. A mutual acquaintance spoke well of its offerings, so we made a note to drop by, which we did, before packing up for the trip home.

Sweaty and fatigued from walking in the hot afternoon, we took refuge in Christina Ee's, where we cooled down with cendol. Their place and their version of the dessert looked more humble than the other icon farther along Jonker Walk, the often crowded Jonker 88, and its durian cendol.

A layer of cooked adzuki beans, buried under a mound of shaved ice, crowned with a medusaic mass of green strands of pandan jelly and drizzled with melted gula Melaka and coconut milk. Also, no durian, but what the heck. This was just what we needed. A few spoonfuls later, the heat receeded and we felt energised again (carbs are great), though we did feel bad for ordering just two bowls to share between us.

Over that same bowl of cendol, we talked about life and the growing appeal of ginger as one ages (gets rid of wind in the gut), along with plans for the next stages in our fluid itinerary. I'd tune in and out time and again to snort at the tour guides who were helping tourists pick "better" brands of white coffee, biscuits and other merchandise.

Chillin' out with some cendol at Christina Ee's

Before I knew it, the onde-onde been forgotten long enough for them to turn cold and soggy from condensation. Still yummy, though, as I learnt back at the hotel. Unmelted bits of palm sugar crunched along with the coconut as I bit down, popping the chewy glutinous rice layer and filling my mouth with a comforting, earthy, syrupy sensation.

This is nothing like what we'd find in KL, or anywhere else we'd been to. And it's just two hours away.

Of the many oversold historical aspects of Melaka, the Baba-Nyonya is arguably among the most visible. They are part of a group collectively known as Cina Peranakan - local-born Chinese who have adopted aspects of Malay or indigenous culture. My attachment to the Chinese heritage in Melaka might have origins in my Penang-born mother's Cina Peranakan roots.

Peranakan in Malay means "local-born" and usually applies to people of other places who are born here, such as the Jawi Peranakan: Indians and those of Middle Eastern origin.

The Cina Peranakan community in Melaka is particularly famous, partly due to strong PR and marketing efforts. You'll find museums showcasing Baba-Nyonya heritage, restaurants serving "authentic" Nyonya cuisine and shops selling Nyonya attire, such as beaded shoes and the figure-hugging baju kebaya. But it's the cuisine, I believe, that looms the largest in the imaginations of visitors.

I find such displays of heritage shallow, which is no one's fault. Many tourists are only interested in the look, feel and tastes of Peranakan Chinese heritage, hurrying by as they do from one attraction to another, afraid to miss out on something else should they linger too long at one spot. Few have the stamina and time to delve deeper, and it's not just the foreign visitors. As such, I feel many of these showcases rarely offer more than just glimpses of a bygone era.

There's an impression that a lot of our history has been steamrolled, bulldozed and sold off in the name of progress before the level of devastation was deemed serious - and even then, progress hasn't slowed. Many origin stories about the people, cuisine, events and architecture have been lost. In spite of the efforts of a handful of tireless, devoted history buffs, activists, academicians and stalwarts in the shrinking communities, we're losing more of our collective heritage as time passes.

Why the blue colouring? Why these designs? Why build it like this? How did the Baba-Nyonyas' Malay-Chinese patois develop?

Few seem to know for sure. Replies such as "It's always been here" or "that's how it is done" aren't enlightening or reassuring.

One day, there will be no answer at all.

And I'm not sure what we can do besides rant about it in self-indulgent "travelogues" like this one.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1. Part 3 is here.


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