Before last weekend I could count on one hand the number of times I'd eaten cendol. Here we are, coming up on two years in Malaysia, and I'd partaken of the beloved Malaysian shaved ice treat exactly twice. Yes - I'd downed cendol, and I suppose I'd enjoyed it, but I just didn't get it, so it floated to the outer orbit of my must-eat Malaysian food universe and just stayed there.
And then there was gula.
You see, over the last year or so I've become an unbearable palm sugar snoot. As Dave and I traipsed around Malaysia and Sumatra researching palm sugar for a presentation we gave in April I honed my sugar tasting skills. I watched, listened, and learned from small-batch producers. I collected - and sampled - many kilos of gula (gula=sugar). I'm able to distinguish between mass-produced and artisan sugars and I can taste the difference between gula made from the sap drawn from at least four palm varieties.
Utterly useless skills - except when it comes to determining the difference between a good cendol and a great one.
Cendol is simple, just five ingredients in its most stripped-down form: shaved ice mounded over chewy pandan-flavored 'pasta', santan (coconut milk), a splash of condensed milk, and gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar named for the southern Malaysian city of Melaka, but produced all over Malaysia) syrup. Add-ins like sago pearls and red beans are optional.
Any dish this uncomplicated requires top-notch ingredients. There's not much variation in ice and condensed milk (some cendol fans will argue the latter point), but the pasta better be smooth, sturdy, and fragrant with pandan leaf, the coconut milk fresh, creamy, and undiluted with water, and the gula sourced from a producer who knows his or her way around a coconut palm patch.
Malaysian and Indonesian palm sugar is unlike any other sweetener - rich and complex, with a whole host of notes that go well beyond the realm of 'sweet'. Brown, dark brown, and muscovado sugars can't touch it. Nor can Thai or any of the other 'upper' Southeast Asian palm sugars. It must be tasted to be believed (unfortunately the good stuff isn't exported). It's the perfect partner for coconut in any form - and cendol's shaved ice provides the ideal backdrop for a palm sugar-coconut pairing.
Many of Melaka's cendol vendors sell bags of gula. I take this to indicate a certain amount of pride in one's ingredients. Some purchase their gula from small shops or distributors, but others go right to the source, buying directly from a small producer somewhere in the vicinity.
My tastiest cendol in Melaka was had by chance, at Makko Nyonya restaurant. Dave and I had stopped by to chat with Maureen, the owner, about her 23-year-old establishment and the food she serves there. Dining wasn't on the agenda for this visit (we'd just had our second breakfast) but Maureen greeted us with bowls of exquisite cendol. Everything about it was right: the coconut milk was so rich that melting ice barely made a dent; the red beans were large and cooked through but not mushy; and the noodles were toothsome and identifiably pandan-flavored. The smoky, butterscotchy gula syrup sent me into a swoon. We purchased a bag of sugar on the way out. I've been nipping from it all week, shaving off bits of gula and eating them like candy.
Friends recommended the cendol at Donald and Lily's Nyonya Food (cendol is dish up from a stall on the street, dishes are served in the small room upstairs) in Melaka old town. A very good cendol indeed but, compared with Maureen's, just not stellar. Beyond too-small, mushy beans that don't maintain their integrity when mixed with the ice, this cendol simply lacks the gula 'wow' factor of Makko's version. If I wasn't such a gula snob I'd probably be raving over it. But with gula, as with so many other things in life, once you've tried the best it's hard to settle for less.
In a few hours I'll be flying to Penang to meet Dave. He plans to introduce me to what he claims is the best cendol in Malaysia.
Now, wait just a minute, Dave - I'll be the judge of that!
Makko Nyonya, 123 Taman Melaka Raya (off Jalan Parameswara), Melaka. Tel. 06-2840737. 1130a-245p and 6-930p. Closed Tuesdays.
Donald and Lily's Nonya Food, facing the parking lot behind Hereen Guest House, Melaka old town. 930a-4p. Closed Mondays.