Jonker Street paved with Malaysian flavours


Back in 1525, the Portuguese poet Barbarosa thundered: “Whoever is Lord in Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” Well, he would, wouldn't he? That was when Portugal ruled what is now a Malaysian city. But Portuguese rule didn't last long. A century later, the Dutch took over, then the Brits. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese folk were to-ing and fro-ing, Malacca being a handy crossroads on the spice-trade map. If you suspected that all these factors produced early fusion fare, you'd be right. But before we get to that, know that Malacca also boasts Jonker Street, an antique lover's paradise lined with shadowy shops crammed with ancient gramophones. Doors away, there is—or at least there used to be—a man who makes shoes like tiny brocade boxes for the few old ladies still around with “lotus feet”. The sights, the heat, shafts of sunlight on polished wood, colours, fragrances—it all came flooding back with Proust-like vividness at Jonker Street, the restaurant.

Opened a couple of months ago on Pacific Boulevard, this small spot has walls the exact warm red of old Malaccan houses. The decorative carved-wood windows are from the real Jonker Street too, and co-owner Tommy Ng is also straight from Malacca. He handles the front of house, while the kitchen is headed up by his brother-in-law Charles Thong, who not only used to run a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur but at one time cooked at a food court turning out up to a thousand bowls of shiok (local dialect for “sumptuous”) prawn noodles a day.

First time around, we ordered takeout nyonya laksa. (“Nyonya” denotes a Chinese- Malaysian dish.) So that textures stay fresh, the noodles, fish balls, prawns, bean sprouts, and fish cake are packaged separately from the sauce (which en route separates into a base of tasty morsels, a foglike layer of coconut milk, and a thin, gleaming, red layer of chili-infused oil). Combine and eat.

Don't let the word chili lead you astray. At their best, Malaysian sauces are more sly digs at the taste buds than unequivocal lefts to the jaw; deftly nuanced, flavours slowly emerge as you eat. Those here owe their complexity to the spices—fennel, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, clove—that Ng brings from his homeland, and to authentic ingredients like galangal, lemongrass, and candlenuts. Multiple tastes infuse the sauce, almost pastelike after its four-hour simmering, that enfolds big chunks of spoon-tender meat in the beef rendang. On the side: nyonya acar, a dish of sweet, sharp pickled cucumber and carrot.

We took roti canai home too, but you really need to revive this Indian-Malaysian flatbread in the toaster oven, Ng told me when I ordered them a second time to eat on the spot. Served so blisteringly hot that you have to wave your hand around for cooling purposes, this is as near as you'll come to standing at a streetside stall while the owner stretches and stretches the dough, folding its outer edge in towards the middle time and again. That's what creates the flakes that make the version at Jonker Street look like a crackly brown rose.

Like all the dips and sauces here, the accompanying curry sauce (the same one that's used for the delicate, intricate chicken curry) is de-lish. Having suffered through too many desiccated lumps on toothpicks recently, I've been avoiding satays, but Jonker Street's are very, very good, generous and tender, the combination of chicken breast and thigh keeping them moist. I like the menu description of the nasi jambori as a “merriment of three flavours”, which are—ta da—beef rendang, a separate bowl of chicken curry, and prawn sambal, the spiciest dish I've tasted here, its stealthy warmth due to Thong seeding the fresh chilies.

Service is warm, helpful, and efficient, and overall there's great attention to detail, from the mix of jasmine, basmati, and russet-coloured wehani in the rice to the offer of water while you're waiting for takeout. The 13-item menu is slowly growing. Lamb curry is available but not listed, as is char kway teow. Coming soon, says Ng, are KL–style Hokkien noodles, as well as lemak nenas, a nyonya pineapple-based dish.

Tiger prawns or wild salmon will push you up to $14 or $15; otherwise, most plates are under $10. With the liquor licence still in the works, I'd figure $25 to $30 for two. Park in Urban Fare's underground lot just round the corner and the restaurant will reimburse you for the first hour.