The Lord of Malacca, it was said in the fifteenth century, controlled the spice trade of the world. For it was through the straits of Malacca that ships laden with pepper and cardamom sailed from India to China, and cargoes of nutmeg, mace and cloves from the Indonesian islands were carried to the markets of Alexandria, Damascus and Venice. The town was founded in 1400 by a Malay prince, to serve as a hub for the trade between east and west. For over a century Indian, Chinese, Arab and Malay merchants met there to trade spices, cotton fabrics, silks, porcelain, and hundreds of other products, creating a rich and vibrant city that welcomed all visitors.
There are always those who covet such wealth and in 1511 the Portuguese, who had only recently discovered the sea route to Asia, captured Malacca. It was a story that was to be repeated often, for the Dutch seized the fortress from the Portuguese in 1641, only to be defeated by the British in 1798. The British did not have much use for Malacca, preferring to divert trade to their nearby port of Singapore, and the city slumbered peacefully, seemingly forgotten by the world. The benefit of this neglect was that Malacca still looks much as it did two centuries ago.
Walking through Malacca is like peeling back layers of history, for you can visit the ancient palace of the Malay Sultan and see the tombs of the courtiers who were part of the entourage of his Chinese queen, a princess of the Ming dynasty. A stroll past the crumbling walls of the Portuguese fort brings you to the harbour where is anchored a reconstructed version of the Flora de la Mar, a ship laden with treasures that sank nearby while returning to Portugal. The centre of the town is dominated by the red brick Stadthuys, the former residence of the Dutch governor, surrounded by British administrative buildings.
While European conquerors came and went, local life and business carried on without interruption. Chinese merchants who had lived for generations in Malacca controlled much of the day-to day trade and commerce and they often intermarried with Malays, creating a unique, hybrid culture. The men in this community were known as Babas and the women as Nyonyas, and there evolved distinct Baba-Nyonya styles of living, dress and cooking. Several old houses have been converted into museums, preserving the rich culture of the Straits Chinese.
The main action in Malacca is on Jonker Street. This long street is lined with restaurants, shops, art galleries and also becomes the scene of a vibrant night food market on weekends. People travel from far to visit this famous night market and you will see long lineups at most of the popular street food stalls.
There are many Nyonya dishes that originated in Malacca and are unique. We tried all of them and found them to be delicious! One of our favourites was an appetizer called Pai Tee or Top Hat.
This consists of little deep fried baskets, made from rice flour and shaped like a hat. Accompanying them are crunchy vegetables and fiery sambal. You stuff everything into your 'hat' and eat it in one big bite!
One outstanding and unusual dish that I fell in love with was Nyonya green chili pickle, shown above. Long hot green chilies are stuffed with grated green papaya, then pickled in vinegar and spices, the whole lot doused in seasoned chili oil before being brought to the table. The hot, sour, spicy and sweet flavours are guaranteed to wow your taste buds! Interestingly, this is also known as achar, demonstrating it's Indian influences as the Hindi word for pickles is also the same.
Other typical Nyonya dishes that we really enjoyed were Chap Chye - a medley of stir fried vegetables, crunchy okra with chili sambal, sour tamarind fish curry with whole okra and Sambal Petai - shrimp in a red chili sambal sauce with bitter beans.
Savouring a Cendol is the best way to cool off in Malacca! This unusual dessert is an unlikely concoction of shaved ice, coconut milk, slithery green noodles, red kidney beans and palm sugar, that works surprisingly well.
Chicken Curry Kapitan is a popular dish that embodies the history of Malacca. It combines Indian curry with Malaysian and Chinese ingredients. The result is a rich thick curry, infused with the aromas of lemongrass, lime leaves and spices.
I love the harmony of unusual flavours in this curry where the spices mingle with coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal and dried shrimp, with delicious results.
One of my favourite stories behind it's creation is one where this dish was first created on board a ship. When the captain of the ship asked his cook what was for dinner, the cook replied "chicken, kapitan". The ship's captain mistook this as being the name of the dish and it came to be called Curry Kapitan after that.
Garnishing this curry with a grated egg might seem unusual at first, but believe me, it transforms the curry sauce, adding richness, flavour and texture to it as it gets folded in while serving. The halved eggs in the curry are also delicious, taking on the flavours of the sauce they are cooked in. In fact, I prefer them to the chicken!
Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan
Most of these ingredients such as fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves can easily be found in any Asian grocery store. You will end up with some extra spice paste. You can either freeze it or use it like I do - by frying up leftover plain cooked rice with it. Freeze unused portions of coconut milk or use in other recipes such as coconut rice. It is the perfect accompaniment for this curry!
1 lb (450g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
3 tbsp oil, divided
Salt to taste
2 tbsp Nyonya curry powder, divided
For spice paste:
1 inch piece ginger or galangal
1 stalk lemongrass, inner white parts only
4 cloves garlic
1 2-inch piece fresh turmeric
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 fresh + 2 dried red chilies
6 macadamia nuts
1 tsp each: brown sugar, dried shrimp powder or paste (optional), lime juice
For the curry:
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup each: prepared spice paste (from above), coconut milk, water
2 lime leaves, slivered
3 boiled eggs, peeled
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
Combine chicken with salt to taste and 1 tbsp each of the oil and curry powder in large bowl. Mix well, cover and refrigerate 15 min or longer, until needed.
Meanwhile, make the spice paste. Blend all spice paste ingredients together in a blender until you achieve a smooth paste. Add a couple tablespoons of water if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and reserve until needed.
To make curry, warm 2 tbsp oil in a deep non stick skillet over medium heat. Add onions, cook until lightly brown, about 5-7 min.
Add marinated chicken, brown for 5 min. Add 1/2 cup of the prepared reserved spice paste, fry 2 min. Add coconut milk and water, salt, remaining 1 tbsp curry powder and lime leaves. Mix well, cover and let contents start to bubble. Reduce heat to low and cook for 15 min, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, halve 2 of the eggs and grate the remaining egg with the larger holes of a grater. Add the halved eggs to the curry and cook another 15 min until chicken is very tender and sauce thickened. Fold in chopped fresh coriander. Taste for seasonings, adding some more lime juice or salt if needed.
Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with grated egg.