We're just back from a few days in Malacca. My notebook is full of scribblings, few of which concern food. Dave and I were there (and will be again soon) to work on a heritage story -- which means that, for a change, eating was not our primary concern.
But the beauty of working with a photographer is that while I'm busy with interviews he's out and about, walking the streets looking for great shots. Being Dave, he can't help also being on the lookout for delicious food -- even if that's not the storyline he's shooting to.
So kudos to The Photographer for rediscovering a great little food court on Temenggong Road, just outside of the old city. (A review of the archives reveals that we actually ate at this bustling spot three years ago.) It's home to a stall serving up some pretty exemplary Nyonya specialties.
This 75-year-old gentleman swears by Nancy's laksa
Like curry laksa. Nancy does a spare, almost spartan version, more broth than tofu puffs, cockles, and sprouts. Attention to detail is evident in the ever so thinly shaved cucumber and daun kesom (laksa leaf, aka Vietnamese coriander) garnish that she meticulously arranges with small tongs.
It also shows itself in her belacan-free sambal, which is bright with chili flavor (not just heat) and a hint of lime leaf.
Nancy's laksa gravy is superb. It smells and tastes of the freshest coconut milk, yet isn't so over-the-top rich as to weigh you down.
Which is a good thing, because you'd be crazy to walk away without tasting her version of pai tee, a Nyonya specialty rarely (if ever) seen on the street.
To be honest, I had never encountered a "top hat" -- little pastry cups filled with shrimp or pork, cucumber, stewed jicama and egg -- that I would willingly meet again. The versions I've sampled have always been more style than substance, cute but utlimately disappointing, with too-thick and/or too-oily shells and a lackluster filling.
Nancy's pai tee turned me. Assembled to order (like the laksa garnish, using those tiny tweezer-like tongs), they start with the barest possible fluted pastry shells, and finish with feathers of omelette and a dusting of caramelized sliced shallots. Nancy serves her delicious homemade sweet-hot chili sauce on the side rather than squirting a dab inside each pai tee, to preserve the crunch as long as possible.
Biting into one of her top hats, I finally "got" the point of this dish --- the shatteringly crisp shell, the warm and soft dark soy sauce-stewed jicama, the fresh crunchy cucumber, and the chewy egg strips together in one bite made for a lovely marriage of warm and cool, salty and sweet and a little bitter.
Incredible to encounter such a lovingly made version of such an intricate and delicate dish at a hawker stall. (Once again -- the unexpected delights of street food!)
Bonus: Dave re-stumbled upon Nancy's stall just as her mango tree is fruiting. Which means that we were able to pack home some fantastic mango pickle. On the tart side, somewhat crisp, and really tasting of the fruit, it'll make a perfect side for curry and shine equally as brightly on a sandwich. Also available: a lovely mango jam (fruit, a wee bit of sugar, and nothing else) and mango-dragonfruit jam (slightly less tart than straight mango).
Get 'em while you can.
Nancy's Nyonya Laksa, Pai Tee, etc.Tong Fang Coffeeshop/Food Court, 124 Jalan Temenggong, Melaka. Early morning to noonish, closed Wednesday.