Sunday, 7 August 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 5

We passed by the Dutch Square, where Christ Church and the Stadhuys were. When the Dutch took over Melaka, the Stadhuys (State House) was built as the administrative centre. We skipped this part.

On my last visit, I was turned off by how much the area had become like KL's Central Market - kitsched up to thirteen with souvenir stands and overly kitted-out rickshaws, which blared music and had spinning or flashing lights. Now, the rickshaws have themes: Captain America, Avengers, Doraemon, and even the girls from Disney's Frozen.

Themed rickshaws (not at the Dutch Square)

Remembering something, I asked The Ladies to wait at a huge corner shop - more like an emporium - after we crossed the bridge over the Melaka River. I hurried to the Dutch Square, encountering a mime in green clothes and full-body make-up on the way and, at the Square itself, a pair of buskers: a young guitar player and a much younger girl who was belting out popular hits. Shouldn't there be a minimum age limit for street performers?

Back in 2007, I had peered into a cannon near the clock tower and saw it had been "repurposed" as a garbage can. Lacking a camera of my own, I'd asked Melody to help me take a picture of the inside. This will go viral, I thought at the time.

The photo vanished, a victim of Melody's overzealous digital housekeeping.

This time, I had my own camera. And smartphones were more ubiquitous now.


Signs of people messing around with Melaka

Looks like they done cleaned up the cannon, but seems sum varmints still wanna mess with Melaka.

Returning to the emporium, I looked around for The Ladies, but they were nowhere. I whipped out the phone and WhatsApped them. By now I was already accustomed to this gadget and what it offered - near total connectivity to everyone else who's similarly wired.

Then, I spotted Sam, who waved me over to where Wendy was. We soon headed back towards the hotel to meet up with Melody and reported our morning's findings.

In our absence, Ms Freelancer had charmed who she said was the hotel's cook into a conversation. He even put up an extension cord for her laptop as she worked in the dining area and offered to buy her lunch.

I can see why the hotel's sales manager that night was cautious around Melody. Unlike the cook, he probably had some experience with her ilk. Probably from how writers and journalists ask questions. Her good looks might have helped, too.

We showed Melody the murals, plus some of the other sights after that. Sam finally took a photo of me on the bench in front of the drooling devil bull, but left before I suggested posing in the "hey, what's that smell is that rain OMG OMG OMG DROOLING DEVIL BULL AAAAH GET IT AWAY GET IT AWAY CALL THE POLICE" manner. I did a lot better with a similar parade of drawings in Penang's 3D Museum two years ago.

"...It's behind me, right?" (Photo by Sam Fong.)

Later, Melody suggested having lunch at some place visited by a blogger I referred to as "a violet-haired witch". We found it easily enough, thanks in part to the Internet.

From the outside, you can't tell what kind of place the Calanthe Art Café is - not without the letters on the shopfront that spelled "Malaysia - 13 States Coffee". As part of her research, Melody stalked the violet-haired witch's blog, leading us to follow part of the latter's Melakan food trail on this trip.

Presumably named for a group of terrestrial orchids (editing manuscripts on botany helped), parts of the café's interior is reminiscent of what I'd dub "desert island" chic: overhanging vines and plants, recycled wood, creepers and such.

A pile of junk was heaped in a corner, including an antique TV from Sharp (I was only yeay-high when I watched it, OMG!) turned fish tank, assorted enamelled steel kitchenware, and an old painting of some bloke. Nearby was a fish pond and an old well ("my grandma's shower", said Sam).

Outside Calanthe Art Café

Melody chose the most out-of-the-way nook in the café that made me glad I packed mosquito repellent. A walkway of planks over mostly white rounded stones led to it. G*d, would the waiters even know we're here?

From the length of our waiting time, it seemed they didn't - for a while.

Like Chawan in KL, Calanthe offered a choice of coffee from all the states in Malaysia. The girls ribbed me over ordering "Penang coffee": "We're in Melaka, drink the local stuff!"

Maybe I was homesick, or just having a taste of how Melakans do Penang coffee. Anyway, since all three beverages (including the two "Melakas") were on ice, they weren't all that appealing. Ice waters everything down.

The food was more satisfying. My "golden" nasi lemak was particularly wonderful, as was the chicken rendang served with it. Wendy sort of regretted picking the tom yam noodles, which she felt was bland in taste and presentation. And is it common to have celery in tom yam?

Melody took her cue from the blogger and was soon writing micro-paeans to the Nyonya curry laksa. Rich and spicy, the chilli and coconut-milk gravy was elevated with a dollop of what we think was ground Vietnamese mint. The pungent, earthy herb lent a dimension to the laksa we had no words for-

Golden nasi lemak, because plain white just won't do at a historical city

"I'd come back for this," said Melody.

Yes, the exact words! Thank you, Mel.

But then, came the dessert. I'd only heard of kuih batik for the first time, despite it being around for ages (I was told). This sinfully decadent local fudge-like brownie is an unbaked mélange of crumbled Marie biscuit, sweetened condensed milk and Milo - household items in the average Malaysian (or, maybe even Malayan) kitchen and synonymous with "comfort food".

Which might explain the sugar-high plateau we'd ended up in.

I'd come back for this. After about a year on the exercise bike.

"I can make this," said Melody the recipe thief. At my look of reproach she went, "C'mon, it's easy!"

"Sweetened condensed milk, not creamer," I told her. By the way, anybody notice that most of the "sweetened condensed milk" brands out there call the products "sweetened creamer" these days? Why is that? Could it be that there's little of what one might call "milk" in them?

The nyonya curry laksawas great, but I never figured out whether
the herb paste that made it better was normal or Vietnamese mint

"I'm more interested in the curry laksa," said Sam, reminding me of my wish to get a pestle and mortar. I shared this, perhaps unwisely.

Sam turned to me at once. "If I get you a pestle and mortar, you learn how to make this." She pointed at what was now a bowl half-filled with laksa gravy. "Deal."

Hey, wait, don't I have a say?

We left Calanthe and wound up back at East and West Rendezvous, where Melody also purchased some dumplings. She and I shared one later, and it was delicious. But I still held back on buying my own.

Wandering around, the afternoon heat eventually got to us. We escaped into the same food emporium, the large one that sold more "local" goods. This one stocked items from local brand San Shu Gong - literally, "Old Third Uncle" - which I knew for its bird's-eye chilli sauce. Nothing quite like Nando's, unfortunately. In a chiller and huge buckets of ice, bottles of iced coffee and honey-lime drinks.

Again, I bought nothing. The lines at the cashier counters put me off.

Kuih batik - who needs fudge?

Leaving San Shu Gong, I found the girls inside an Ochado outlet on the opposite side of the road, seeking refuge from the heat. A few minutes later, we left for the hotel, but not before picking up something.

In Melaka, there's always a famous "something you gotta try". We were not sure if this was a famous putu piring stall, but we were curious, peckish, or both. The stall appeared to be manned by migrant workers. Making this dessert, said to be a Malay take on the Indian putu mayam (string-hoppers), is hard work and requires special equipment, so we got a batch of five or six. We were ashamed to order less.

We watched the staff sandwich a filling of, yes, gula Melaka between scoops of rice flour in funnel-shaped moulds and cover them, allowing the steam from the boiling water below to cook the contents.

Getting the right consistency for the flour is tricky: too much water makes it goopy and too little leaves you with something dry. The flour has got to crumble the right way. Much later, I wondered if the consistency had something to do with the way the batter is treated, like the idli served in Indian restaurants.

Not the "famous" putu piring, but still nice

Back at the hotel, the crumbly, white rice-flour cakes proved a welcome pre-lunch treat. Melody approved. What else can you say when the flour bits disintegrate and do that soul-soothing carb-rich medley with that familiar scent and sweetness flooding your mouth? Shut up, trilled the putu piring, and enjoy.

A drink helps, as the flour can leave your mouth and throat a bit parched.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2, part 3 and part 4. Read part 6 here.


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