Mrs Tan’s taste of Me­laka


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DOR­CAS CULLEN

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. 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:

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