The country now known as Malaysia began life as the Malay Sultanate of Malacca, an Islamic outpost in Southeast Asia, and started drawing attention as a strategically important shipping route connecting East and West in the 15th century. Then came the invaders. First, it was the Portuguese, determined to control the spice trade... and then the Dutch... and then the British... and then the Japanese... and the British, yet again. At the center of it all was the nation’s primary port city of Malacca, batted around like a colonial ping pong ball by foreign powers, practically more than any other place on earth, for nearly half of a millennia. If you’ve heard of the Straits of Malacca, the body of water running the length between the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, and the Malay Peninsula, the name pays homage to the important legacy of this much fought-after place. Modern-day Malaysia didn’t actually become an independent nation until 1957 and only took its present form in 1963, when Singapore split off on its own. A fascinating, if muddled, history.
So, I decided to make Malacca (known as “Melaka” locally) my first stop, three hours north of Singapore, to explore Malaysia’s historical roots, prior to delving headfirst into its food culture. The effects of Malacca’s colonial heritage linger in almost every aspect of life here, from the architecture to the ethno-religious makeup to the language; but, it’s most readily apparent in its food.
I spent most of my time here exploring the quaint riverfront lined with restaurants and bars, the lengthy Jonker Street night market that comes alive on weekends, as well as the colonial ruins dotting the original layout of the city. That is, until I met a certain chef who inquired why I’d come to Malaysia and my immediate response was the food. She remarked that while the northern island of Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia, the approach toward cooking between north and south couldn’t be more different. And, with that, my culinary adventures in Malaysia began in earnest far earlier than I’d anticipated. Much more on that to come.
#malacca #melaka #malaysia #colonial #history #wanderlust