Kristang cuisine 101 at The Majestic Malacca
If the heart of a home is in its kitchen, the heart of a city must lie in the plethora of kitchens that line each resident's home. At a recent visit to the UNESCO-certified city, it's apparent that the hands of a chef, grandmother and mother Melba Nunis hold the heart of this historic city. A native whose roots read like the pages of a history book, the Portuguese, Dutch and Malaccan makeup that lie in Melba Majella Nunis is translated into the food she feeds guests at Melba at the Mansion, the in-house restaurant at luxury hotel The Majestic Malacca.
The chef takes residency after the closure of her restaurant Simply Mel's, a family-run restaurant that used to exist at The Sphere in Kuala Lumpur. Now, she takes her homemade Kristang cuisine to a restored 1920s Straits Settlement mansion that sits by the winding river banks of Malacca River and Kampung Morten, a charming enclave of Malay residents. While the building was re-opened as the hotel in 2008, its past still lives on in the Victorian tiles, wooden floors, stained glass windows and porcelain fixtures within the compound that remind of the lavish existence of Leong Long Man, the tycoon who had it built to house his four wives and 12 children.
Mummy and me
The Majestic Malacca's recent menu update is a long time coming. While the hotel's restaurant used to serve Western and local Peranakan fare, chef Melba's introduction has spiced things up. Mirroring the palates of the creole ethnic group who descended from the Dutch and Portuguese settlers in Malacca in the 16th and 17th centuries, the menu brings together Kristang flavours with local Malaccan dishes and Southeast Asian staples.
The restaurant — which sits on the second floor directly above reception — isn't trendy by any means. Certain parts of its wooden floorboards creak when you miss a step, its chairs aren't mismatched and are quite a drag to move around, while the crisp white table cloths frown upon any form of disorder. Yet it's this blatant throwback to a classic aesthetic that has guests both young and old flock back. Old-school is the new cool, seen in the traditional room dividers that separate areas within the restaurant, as well as the grand piano that sits solemnly near the entrance. As you make your way up the stairs, you'll see framed glimpses of chef Melba's life: Her accolades, her children and her mother.
Crediting her mother and grandmother with an early introduction to cooking, Melba's menu features dishes that have been passed down through generations of family recipes. Some of those recipes were from her mother, Rosalind Adelaide Fernandez, who used to scribble them on pieces of paper she'd keep in an old shoebox. Others were from her grandmother Mercedes Sta Maria, affectionately known as Mercy. Her namesake's croquettes pesce make for moreish appetisers with its breaded, begedil-like mackerel pieces. The kitchen doesn't just display the affairs of the matriarch — Melba's father Vincent Arthur Sta Maria is also remembered in Papa Vincent's pikadel pesce. For her dedication to keeping her Kristang heritage alive, Melba's also an ambassador for the Korsang di Melaka, a Malacca Portuguese heritage association in Malaysia.
A tour through Malacca's kitchen
Before you place your orders, your introduction to Malaccan cuisine starts the moment you enter The Majestic Malacca. A large jar of peanut cookies is placed strategically near the reception, tempting you to fuel up with its crisp and crumbly bits. The hotel's welcome is warm — in the form of a pot of tea in a woven basket lined with Peranakan textile and ceramics. In the evening, the turndown service comes with traditional kuihs or pastries, as well as glutinous rice and sambal.
But the real feast awaits in Melba at the Mansion. A good meal starts with the Inchimintu Karangezu, Melba's baked crab stuffed with prawn, chicken and vegetables. It's something you wouldn't expect out of a Southeast Asian kitchen — and yet the pineapple salad brings to mind the achar often enjoyed in Malay and Indian cuisine. Chef Melba ensures that you're dining at home, and not just at any other restaurant — so portions are generous. She highlights the similarities of Kristang cuisine with other staples that resulted from the colonial era, such as the Kari Debal, which shares a common ingredient — vinegar — with Goa's devil curry. A dish that's served during Christmas, Easter and other big celebrations, the chicken and potatoes are braised with a spicy kick. This heat is credited to the Portuguese explorers, who brought chili from Brazil to Asia during the spice trade.
Then there's the buah keluak, synonymous to Kristang cuisine in Malaysia and Eurasian homes in Singapore. An essential and love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, its rich, slightly pungent flavour thickens Melba's kari keluak like how an olive tapenade might intensify a pasta. Another standout is the kari seccu, a slow-cooked, dry curry that slightly differs from the beef curries you might get from a Malay kitchen. Of course, what's a visit to Malacca without the tangy, creamy taste of laksa — while Melba's version is not as rich, it's still a hearty broth of chicken and seafood that's not to be missed.
Some of Malacca's claims to fame aren't entirely forgotten as well. The ubiquitous Gula Melaka sweetens the creamy, sago dessert, a fitting end to a comfort meal that you'll want to return to time and again.