We popped down to Malacca over the weekend, to research a local specialty for an article. The place is starting to grow on us. Every time we go (this was only our third visit in almost three years) we like it just a little bit more. Malacca is not as full-on charming as Penang; its historic center is smaller than Georgetown and it's certainly not hawker food central. But there is something about it...
We don't go to Malacca for Jonker's Walk, and we certainly don't go for the shopping mall that's been erected on the square where Malaysia's independence from British rule was declared (what were city officials thinking?!). We go to admire the old Peranakan houses, steal glimpses of what remains of old Malacca in the historic center, and - of course - eat.
The best time to wander Malacca is early in the morning, when there's no traffic clogging the old streets (less of a concern if you're there on a weekday) and life goes on pretty much as it has for decades: here a long-time resident selling steamed spice bread from a stool set up outside the front door of her lovely old house, there a grandad doddering down an alley on the way to dim sum. A pork seller begins to set up shop on a side street, a popiah seller makes popiah skins in a shop on its fourth generation, tinny Chinese pop music wafts out of the second-story window of a row house, a housewife slowly sweeps her stoop.
We walk Kampung Pantai Road across the river, where it turns into old Mill Road, and then into Egerton Road. At the confluence of the two roads stands Eng Seng Market, the last in Malacca's old center. The market dates back to the early 1900s, though the structure itself wasn't erected until 1953 (notice the Art Deco elements in the building, above), the donation of a wealthy Chinese Malaccan named Gan Hong Hoe. We wonder if it isn't his portrait that hangs high on the market's front wall.
Eng Seng isn't large, and though it's fantastically frantic early in the a.m. and boasts a fair selection of tasty prepared goodies, sold outside next to the building, I suppose there's nothing particularly special about it. But Eng Seng has hung on in a town that's seen quite a lot of beautiful and historic structures razed since the late 1980s, and that makes us partial to it. A vendor tells us that ten years ago the city government planned to demolish Eng Seng and replace it with a ten-story building. The plan was protested and eventually scrapped and for now, at least, Eng Seng is safe.
Behind the market is a food court of sorts where we like to grab our first, second, and sometimes third coffees of the morning. There are battered plastic tables, stools, and a number of stalls selling foods like char yoke (roast pork - meant for takeaway, but one of these mornings we'll give in, purchase a couple hundred grams and eat the burnished, crackly-skinned meat with our fingers, as sort of a sans egg variation on bacon and eggs), noodles, and fish balls (very popular with the locals).
While working on my second coffee I notice a flurry of transactions taking place at a stall selling banana fritters and zong, leaf-wrapped rice dumplings. The banana fritters are spoken for before they even emerge from the fryer, and the queue is long. The vendor's Nyonya zong are going fast but somehow I manage to scoop one up. I'll soon wish I'd purchased the rest to take away.
Nyonya zong are tinted blue with the same flower (bunga telaga) that colors the Kelantanese specialty nasi kerabu. Her version contains a savory beef filling extravagantly seasoned with five-spice; the Sichuan peppercorn in the spice mixture is prevalent enough to just ever-so-lightly set my tongue to tingling. The sambal served alongside contains no belacan (a phenomenon we'll encounter several times in Malacca, belacan-free sambal), is extremely spicy in a good way, but in the end distracts attention that should be firmly focused on that filling.
Our Nyonya wake-up call. And it won't be the only breakfast of the morning.