The words 'Chinese' and 'curry' rarely appear in the same thought bubble. But here in Malaysia, a country whose cuisine is a glorious mish-mash of influences Indian, Indonesian, Malay, European and Chinese, Malay cooks fry halal char kuey teow, a noodle dish of Chinese origin, Indian nasi kandar vendors cook up duck, a fowl not often associated with Indian cuisine, and, as we found in Melaka, Chinese cooks prepare a mean pot of curry.
Ji Chang Jie Curry Rice has been in business for around fifty years. A decade ago you would have found it on Jonker Street, right in the midst of Melaka's historic center. That was before the lifting of rent control and city-sponsored 'beautification', in the form of a project dubbed 'Jonker Walk', drove it and most of the street's other old occupants out. Now the establishment sits well beyond the reach of tourists on foot, but original customers and their offspring still crowd its tables at lunchtime. We were lucky enough to be introduced to the place by S, his wife S, and their daughter S. S remembers driving into Melaka every Saturday with his father to indulge in Ji Chang Jie's pork curry and go-withs.
Fatt, the current owner-operator, told us that the restaurant was started by his father, who'd labored in various eateries before starting his own. His father's curry recipe is Malay-, rather than Indian-influenced, and includes plenty of lemongrass and chilies and only a bit of coconut milk.
Two big pots greet arriving customers - one for the curry, and one for the black soy and star anise-stewed eggs, tofu, and pork bits that accompany it. All the meal's components - curry, tofu, eggs, and braised napa cabbage - are served in separate dishes (along with an extra bowl of curry sauce), to be mixed to taste with rice on the diner's plate. The compatability of red curry and sweet, herby soy sauce might not be immediately apparent, but here at Ji Chang Jie the Malay and Chinese flavors blend seamlessly, and lusciously. This is Malaysia, after all.
Ji Chang Jie's tofu is memorable, so fresh that a pronounced soy bean flavor steams right over the top of the hearty soy sauce braise, its texture firm and substantial but wonderfully, sauce-soppingly porous.
Fatt grinds the curry paste himself.
Its bright spices and subtle heat are complemented by deliciously fatty and perfectly falling-apart pork pieces and mashable potato chunks.
Having survived its move to less central premises with patronage intact, and growing, Ji Chang Jie looks set to stick around for a while. Fatt tells us he's teaching his daughter's boyfriend, a computer science graduate, to cook. Someday, he might want to take over the business.
Good reason to hope for a long-term downturn in the IT industry.
Ji Chang Jie Curry Rice, G-11 Malim Jaya, Melaka (look for the row of shophouses on your left if you're heading in from Melaka center), 8a-2p. Closed Monday.