The sweltering, relentless heat. The whiff of char kway teow from a coffee shop as we passed by (more on that later). The crush of crowds at Jonker Street, the aroma of foods curling round old shophouses. And then the bright red bowl of asam fish at Restoran Nyonya Suan.
My dad and I spent three days in Melaka, and now – just a day after returning – I can remember just a few things without the aid of photos. Melaka has been a melting pot long before Singapore was even a thing; but while Singapore is still forging on into ever more turbulent and dynamic cultural mixing, Melaka has somewhat crystallised. The multiculturalism, having long soaked into its old bones, gains a certain retrospective clarity and solidity.
Situated along a major thoroughfare, Nyonya Suan is a rather dimly lit place, cool and adorned in the traditional way – with knickknacks from old Chinese coins to a porcelain tree bearing the peaches of immortality (a common Chinese trope). Staff are brisk enough, with the occasional smile, though some clearly know more than others about portion sizes and options.
The gerang asam (fish curry with tamarind), for example. We went through three staff before someone could tell us it’s either a whole fish (too big) or a slice of red snapper. The resulting dish comes in a bowl; it’s a little soupier than I expected, but the colour is the right, dark red.
And the flavour, too. Around the acidity of the tamarind paste, all the elements weave themselves – the brightness of lemongrass, plenty of shallots and garlic, the flaky snapper meat, a gentle but pointed nudge of chilli near the end. This is the sort of gravy that requires more than one bowl of rice.
Equally lovely is the udang lemak nenas, showing off the other key ingredient of Peranakan cuisine, coconut milk. Even though it also uses an acidic ingredient, this dish is anything but sharp like asam fish – it feels more like a warm hug, emphasising fruity sweetness and a thick, minion-coloured gravy. The prawns are merely coated in this gravy, but that’s enough to bring out their natural sweetness.
Of course, not everything is wonderful. I looked forward so much to the ayam pongteh – a chicken and potato stew flavoured mainly with taucheo (soybean paste) – and its colour, black against its yellow and red partners, is enticing.
But while the textures are all good, the flavour is a slam of saltiness. Notes of fermentation, or umami, are all half-drowned by the first salty impression. This was one dish where I had to brush the gravy off to improve on the meat.
Still, there is something just very satisfying about the food here – perhaps the generous portions, or is it the general soupiness? Or maybe the flavours that (besides that salt) are bright but stop wisely short of garish.
And the whole ensemble costs about the same as a single Peranakan dish would in Singapore. When the food is finished we sit back and sip on sour plum drinks, and outside Melaka lies sprawled, battered by the sun, waiting for it to set so the city can get on with its night markets.
Restoran Nyonya Suan
Jalan Merdeka, Taman Costa Mahkota, 75000 Melaka, Malaysia (map)
Daily, 11AM–2:15PM, 5:30–9:15PM
Contact no.: +60 11-1300 2988