Mrs Tan’s taste of Melaka
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HOBART, TASMANIA WEdrove up the coast from Johor Bahru to Melaka to explore Straits Chinese culture and history. Straits Chinese, or babas and nyonyas, are descendants of Chinese traders who intermarried with local women. Their culture and food is a mix of the two races, they speak a Malay patois and in Melaka became wealthy traders.
We booked into a guesthouse belonging to the chatty Mrs Tan, a Straits nyonya married to a Chinese. We sat with her over tea, admiring photographs of her son in full Chinese ceremonial wedding costume. Mrs Tan had run a restaurant for years before passing it on to her son and taking over the guesthouse.
She and my husband, also a chef, spent a couple of happy hours swapping kitchen stories. He was engrossed in learning about delicacies such as ikan bakar and cendol and sago jaggery pudding.
Leaving them to their recipes, I walked up the road to the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, which is made up of three traditional houses originally owned by wealthy traders. The front of the museum is an elegant living room decorated with imported Chinese furniture, dark wooden chests and marble-topped tables.
This is where guests were received while the unmarried daughters sat in a slightly less elaborate back room with locally made furniture copying the Chinese style; they could stay out of sight, but still hear the dowry negotiations through carved wooden screens.
Upstairs is reached by a staircase that used no nails and is locked at the top at night for security and to stop children falling down the stairs.
Back at the guesthouse, Mrs Tan was busily pushing bundles of herbs under my husband’s nose and asking him to guess each one. She urged us to dine at the restaurant now run by her youngest son and his wife.
After getting lost in the one-way streets of Melaka, we eventually sat down to try the dishes she had suggested. They were worth the walk. Send your 400-word contribution to our Follow the Reader column: travel@theaustralian. com.au. Published columnists will receive a three-piece set for clothes, shoes and toiletries by F1 Spacepak, a compression packing system that maximises suitcase space. $98. More: flight001.com.au.