Sometimes the too-modern, sky-reaching center of Singapore can get a little exhausting, maybe even suffocating. The forest of buildings and conundrum of streets can all be too nauseating. To get a break from Singapore’s overpriced, fast-paced patterns, there are a dozen bus companies crossing the border daily into Malaysia. One place in particular? The tiny, but vibrant and colorful, town of Melaka.
Filled with the nation’s cultural and historical symbols, this quaint location is all character. With dynastic Chinese architecture, the site in itself is an exhibit. The houses are so clumped together that the nuances are often overlooked. But with close inquiry, it is obvious that each house has many stories, many visitors, many functions. Constructed for the initial purpose of trading of transnational goods, the houses run along a river that was once occupied by merchants across the globe. The side of the houses that face the river are painted in exquisite, dynamic designs of flowers, oil-lamps, fruits, fish, fences, lanterns, dancers…
Sit back for a second and think about how good sunshine and a freshening breeze feels against your chest as you tilt your head back to take it all in. Taking a scroll in Melaka is this, except this time you are lifting your nose to the scent of spices, sweets, and just-out-of-the-oven pastries. The streets are lively, animated, and aromatic with conglomerates of people lined up at every restaurant, street food vendor, and snack shop. Even with maps and guides, the streets are circuitous, often even the natives are confused when asked about directions. Every turn into a different alley uncovers smells of fresh food and desserts. Jonker Street is the most popular road, a good starting point for the novice traveler. Hoe Kee Restaurant marks the beginning of every food lover’s adventure with its famous variations of Hainanese rice balls accompanied by flame-grilled chicken. Thirty steps away is Jonker 88. Here is where it is wise to abandon all manners and polite customs. Otherwise, it will be impossible to even make it to the front of the queue to sample the reason for living: a bowl of cendol. Placed behind two small wheeling carts, with signs made from red construction paper, it is natural to question the legitimacy of whichever online review that praised this restaurant. Once inside, it becomes clear this is an alcove where miracles are collected and crafted. The shop is cramped with archeological displays and worldly artifacts. But the interior design is only complementary to the dessert. Overlapping a mountain of neatly shaved ice, cendol is up to ones imagination. Made up of any combination of tropical fruits mixed with various textures of jellies and chewy dough balls, all topped with purple, pink, blue, green, or yellow syrup, a bite of the cendol will explain why this recipe older than its surrounding antiques has made it into modern day without any tweaks or changes.
The most popular of all the desserts, though, is the sweet tofu. Silky smooth and delicate as porcelain, the tofu is served hot in thin slices, almost like mini pancakes. The slicing of these pieces cannot go wrong, for the vendors meticulously use large, thin spoons to scoop out well-defined slabs of tofu. No need to bite, only sip. In response to contact with the mouth, it melts. This is when things get challenging. There is the option of actually chewing chunks of this tofu taking in wholeness of savory yummy or drinking it up and continuously savoring joy in a bowl.
The tofu, while fine and smooth on its own, needs the sauce. Sweet, obviously, but not like candy or sugar. It is sweet with the scent of honey that explains the territorial nature of bees. Floating around in this sauce are little round tapiocas no wider than a dime. Like marshmallows and cotton candy, the tapioca pieces will melt and become a retainable watery flavor that works to compliment the sweetness of its surroundings. With these two simultaneously tag teaming to pleasure every taste bud, it is no wonder people line up like baby birds at feeding time.