Missing the taste of Melaka? Why the flavours of my hometown are never far away

– Pictures by CK LimMelakan style 'yee kiao mee': yellow noodles topped with fish balls, sliced fish cake, 'foo chuk' and chopped spring onions, doused with a soy sauce based gravy.
– Pictures by CK LimMelakan style 'yee kiao mee': yellow noodles topped with fish balls, sliced fish cake, 'foo chuk' and chopped spring onions, doused with a soy sauce based gravy.

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COMMENTARY, Sept 16 — The toothsome strands of yellow noodles are topped with bouncy fish balls, sliced fish cake, slivers of foo chuk (bean curd skin rolls) and chopped spring onions.

Just enough of the dark gravy (mainly soy sauce but who knows what other secret ingredient the stall owner employs?) to bring it all together, and you have a bowl every true-blue Melakan would recognise.

The inimitable yee kiao mee, the noodles that remind me of my hometown. Perhaps right about now more than ever before.

This special time, from Merdeka to Malaysia Day, when the Jalur Gemilang is flying proud, I am fortunate to be safe and sound in my home in KL. Some of my fellow compatriots are further away, working in other countries, doing their best to earn a living and put food on the table for families back home.

Old school 'kopi O kaw' at a neighbourhood 'kopitiam.'
Old school 'kopi O kaw' at a neighbourhood 'kopitiam.'

I have loved ones in Bangkok and in London, in Singapore and in Tokyo. They are homesick; not being able to travel makes it harder.

But it’s okay; we are Malaysians wherever we find ourselves. We always carry a little bit of our tanahair with us wherever we go.

Still, I am grateful that I’m actually in our tanahair, no longer stranded on distant shores and desperate for a way back home. I have been blessed to be home for quite some time now.

The famous prawn cracker and fish ball noodles in Tengkera.
The famous prawn cracker and fish ball noodles in Tengkera.

So isn’t it strange that I would be feeling a little homesick too?

Let me explain.

Whenever this season of patriotic festivities arrives each year, I can’t help but long to return to my hometown: Melaka, where it all began for me... and for our country. This year, with travel restricted, I haven’t balik kampung in a while (a scenario many of my fellow countrymen understand all too well).

I miss breakfast at the trusty kopitiam in my old neighbourhood, where the roti bakar is always spread with cold butter and lumpy kaya. Half-boiled eggs are a must, of course, to dip the toast in, and some kopi O kaw to wash it all down. (Only local Aik Cheong coffee, please.)

Melakan 'nasi lemak' comes with a side of 'kangkung' (left). Hainanese-style pork satay (right).
Melakan 'nasi lemak' comes with a side of 'kangkung' (left). Hainanese-style pork satay (right).

I miss the prawn crackers and fish ball noodles in Tengkera; my father and I would drop by the shop after he had finished his badminton coaching. I remember the stationary pushcart stacked with towers of porcelain bowls, the aromatic steam from the vats of broth, the crunchy deep-fried prawn crackers covering the koay teow noodles beneath.

I miss the nasi lemak, which in Melaka comes with a requisite side of kangkung (water spinach). My friend Jacqueline, originally from Cheras, who moved here to work as a barista years ago before marrying a Melakan boy and starting a family, tells me she searches for the missing kangkung when she has nasi lemak when back in KL, to no avail.

I miss the Hainanese-style pork satay, the smoky skewers of tender charcoal-grilled pork waiting to be dipped into a spicy-sweet gravy. The best part? The surprise of tiny chunks of pineapple in the satay gravy. I never tell my KL friends about this whenever I recommend this in the past; they look startled at first, then ecstatic, always.

Nyonya delights: 'cendol' (left) and colourful 'kuih' (right).
Nyonya delights: 'cendol' (left) and colourful 'kuih' (right).

I miss cendol in Melaka though I would be hard pressed to explain how the Melakan variety is different from one elsewhere. Is the ice more finely shaved? Are the red beans fatter or the strands of cendol made with real pandan? Perhaps it’s the rich gula Melaka syrup. Perhaps the only difference is that I’m having it in Melaka and that is enough.

I miss the Nyonya kuih — row upon colourful row of kuih koci and kuih talam, rempah udang and lepat kacang, the kuih bingka ubi and the pulut inti — and how each one is more tempting than the one before. The only solution is to have them all!

I miss making the sojourn to Tengkera in the early evening, when I was just there in the morning. This time for the freshly made putu piring, piping hot from the steamers. The performance of it all — how the piring (metal saucers) are filled with one layer of rice flour, then fragrant gula Melaka, before another layer of rice flour — and taking a bite when I know it’ll burn my tongue but who can bear to wait?

I even miss the ayam pongteh, which is far from my favourite dish. At least I miss the version my mother makes: she always adds extra potatoes for me to mash into the hot steamed white rice.

Freshly made 'putu piring', piping hot from the steamers.
Freshly made 'putu piring', piping hot from the steamers.

I miss the Nyonya chang. In Melaka, we don’t have to wait for the Dragon Boat Festival to have sticky rice dumplings; we can have these treats all year round, savouring the divine blend of savoury minced pork and sweet candied winter melon, and the ethereal splashes of blue (from the juice of bunga telang) on the otherwise pristine rice.

I miss having supper (when I know I shouldn’t eat so close to bedtime), be it the nutty and spicy mee kahwin, a “marriage” of mee rebus and rojak, or some crunchy garlic butter naan to tear into pieces and enjoy with succulent tandoori chicken.

'Ayam pongteh' (left) and Nyonya 'chang' (right).
'Ayam pongteh' (left) and Nyonya 'chang' (right).

Oh yes. I miss the taste of Melaka. The flavours of my hometown.

But I am not the only one who has moved to KL to work and ended up settling here. So many of us in the capital are from other towns, other states.

We miss our Johor laksa and our Tuaran mee. We long for our Penang asam laksa and our Ipoh kai see hor fun. Every state and every town has a memory, a flavour we remember even in our dreams.

Suppertime favourites: nutty and spicy 'mee kahwin' (left) and garlic butter naan with tandoori chicken.
Suppertime favourites: nutty and spicy 'mee kahwin' (left) and garlic butter naan with tandoori chicken.

Perhaps we don’t have to balik kampung to realise we always carry a little bit of our kampung with us wherever we go. Home is never far from our hearts, after all, or indeed our ravenous bellies.

May we all eat well, and stay healthy and happy always.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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