Remember the time when you used to spend all day playing outside and not even the hot midday sun could stop you?
It was a time of youthful exuberance, where my energy seemed limitless. I’d run around, fall down, roll on dirt, rub off my knees, and get back on track. The joy of having but the game of catch at the playground to worry about was mesmerizing. At least, until I hear the following,
“Abaaaaang, balik makaaaaannn..!”
It was my mom, calling from a few hundred yards away in our kitchen, for me to come home for lunch. And it was probably the only thing that could keep me indoors. Because loosely translated, it also means, “Don’t make me go there.”
I got a similar call last week. No I wasn’t at the playground. I’m 28. And this time, it wasn’t my mom. It was Mama Melba, of Simply Mel’s.
“Beng Naki Kumi!” reads their menu. Which means “Come here and eat!” in Kristang, the language spoken by the Malacca Portuguese community. It was a greeting I could already smell as I stepped into their premise. The sweet scent coming out of their kitchen filled the air and my stomach growled to the beat of the traditional music coming out of the speakers
I was intrigued, naturally, when I was first informed that we would be reviewing a Malacca Portuguese restaurant. I know very little of their culture, let alone their cuisine. Back in school, I have read about the arrival of the Portuguese in Malacca in 1511. It’s the only year I could somehow remember from History class. I have been to the A Famosa a few times. And I have seen their Jingling Nona dance on TV. But that’s about it. If you ask me today, the only other thing that I could probably tell is that some of the early settlers from Portugal might be ancestors of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
I could really use an introduction to the Malacca Portuguese heritage. They are a part of the colorful fabric that makes our multicultural society. Plus, I could use some Malacca Portuguese friends. I’ve never had any, believe it or not. Only Kelantanese who thinks they’re Spanish.
“Catalan, Kelantan, what’s the difference?” they would say.
Our host for the day was Alison, Mel’s daughter. Sweet as gula Melaka, Alison was quick to win our hearts as she gave us a brief overview of the place. The family run restaurant opened its door to the public on July 15th, 2011. Located at The Sphere in Bangsar South, Simply Mel’s is right in the heart of Klang Valley. Situated amidst the towering skyscrapers and office buildings, the restaurant is perfect to meet the demands of the always on-the-go white collar professionals on weekdays, and city-dwellers craving for home-cooked food on weekends.
I am not one to say much about interior design -- my wife would agree -- but the setup at Simply Mel’s creates that warm and homely ambience to its customers. As you step into the entrance, a cozy waiting area welcomes you with family photos, portraits and a congkak board rested on a brick wall. Further inside, a painting portraying the arrival of the Portuguese from Lisbon across the seas to Malacca grace the dining area. A bit of history to accompany your gastronomic journey, crossing cultures and traditions.
As we made ourselves comfortable, Alison walked out of the kitchen with her crew to fill the table with our starters for the day. And I was left puzzled, not knowing where to start. (Always a nice problem to have.)
We were served with Crab Stuffing, Belacan Fried Chicken, Pineapple and Cucumber Salad, Mel’s Malacca Laksa and Karing-Karing, a type of crispy salted fish-ikan bilis crossover.
Crab Stuffing and Belacan Fried Chicken
The Crab Stuffing caught my eye and I wasted no time scooping out a sample of its goodness and evidently enough, I was in sheer ecstasy. Made from crabmeat, minced chicken, dried carrot, onion and turnip, the mix is stuffed in crab shell and baked to perfection. Every bit of its ingredients stood out as only the freshest ingredients are used in Mel’s kitchen. Same goes to the Belacan Fried Chicken. It’s not every day that you get farm-fresh chicken.
Karing-Karing, Pineapple and Cucumber Salad and Mel's Malacca Laksa
The Pineapple and Cucumber Salad reminded me of the acar buah that grandma used to make. It was perfectly balanced with the sweetness of chunky pineapples tossed with onions and sambal belacan. To end our round of starters, we slurped into the hearty bowl of Mel’s Malacca Laksa. The aroma of its lemongrass-filled coconut broth brought a sense of nostalgia somehow. As if we were brought back to a familiar time when the authenticity of laksa still stood strong. None of those pre-cooked food court quick fixes. The wonders of home-cooked meals.
I needed a break. Too engrossed I was in the generous portion of starters that I forgot that we still had a long way to go. It was time to wash down our introduction to Simply Mel’s to make room for the awesomeness that was to follow. For drinks, I had their Asam Boi Limau while Azalia had Barley and Lychee. Nothing like classic beverages to relive our childhood together with the homely delicacies of Mel’s kitchen. Certainly left us smiling after every sip.
Just as we were sipping away, Alison and friends came again with the main dishes for the day: Mel’s “Devil” Curry, Corned Beef Meatball Stew, Keluak Curry, Baked Fish, Soy Limang Terung, and Petai Sambal With Prawn. A feast fit for an army of 300.
As its name signifies, the Devil Curry features a fiery hot blend of spices from the kitchen served in warm basket and topped with slices of chili. Nevertheless, it’s the heat that keeps you coming back for more.
Still profusely sweating from the Devil Curry, we sampled the milder Corned Beef Meatball Stew, and it was a winner. Slow cooked with cured beef meatballs and filled with potatoes, macaroni and vegetables, the stew was definitely something special. The taste oozes quality and the wholesome goodness of its ingredients was enhanced with the flavors of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. This is one dish that is sure to give anyone that extra boost of energy. I wonder if Tongkat Ali is one of the ingredients.
Corned Beef Meatball Stew
The Baked Fish reminded me of our Ikan Bakar trips to Umbai, Melaka. Mel marinates the ray fish -- fresh out of the ocean -- in lemongrass and turmeric sambal and bake it banana leaf. The Baked Fish, along with Soy Limang Terung and Petai Sambal with Prawn made me feel like I was in my mother’s kitchen. The cross-cultural Malay and Portuguese influence of these dishes is apparent was savoring every bit of their flavors.
Simply Mel’s is not without meals for adventurous foodies. In fact, one of the main specialties of the place is the Keluak Curry. Brought all the way from Indonesia, Keluak is a type of nut that is slightly poisonous and needs to be “cooked” underground in ash before it can be consumed. Listening to Alison describing the preparation of the Keluak nuts made me feel like Andrew Zimmern. Sure it was no Japanese Fugu blowfish but hey, you gotta start somewhere.
Slow-cooked with tender chicken in sour-ish curry, the pasty content of the Keluak nuts is to be dug out, and mixed with rice and a generous ladle of its gravy. All you need is a take a good crack at the outer shell, and savor the velvety goodness of its content. The flavor is strong and does require some acquired taste to be enjoyed thoroughly. Nonetheless, it was an experience to remember. So when you’re at Simply Mel’s, do try out the Keluak Curry and Dali Kumang! (That’s “Eat with your hands!”)
Our little adventure didn’t end there. With us still captivated by the Keluak experience, Alison brought out a plate of their Black Sambal Sotong. Passed down from her grandparents to her mother, Mel has brought this special family delicacy to town. With the black ink-bag of the squid untouched, the dish is slow-cooked in spicy sambal. And as the simmering pot of deliciousness is set over low-fire, the ink-bags burst out its black ink, giving the sambal its dark, mysterious character. Great tangy flavor right to the last bite.
Petai Sambal with Prawn, Soy Limang Terung and Black Sambal Sotong
And then it was time for desserts. Simply Mel’s range of desserts offers a variety of traditional delicacies of the olden days. We were brought in time as Pulut Hitam, Sago Biji Gula Melaka, Pulut and Homemade Kaya and Durian Santan were served before our eyes in charming little vintage bowls ornately painted with motifs of simpler times.
Pulut and Kaya
I’ll be frank, if I could come again during tea time just to enjoy these four dishes at once, I would. The Pulut Hitam was purely authentic with salty santan giving it that extra edge and longan for some fruity sweetness. The sago was presented in its appropriately chewy tenderness. The smooth and creamy homemade kaya bonded exquisitely with the pulut. And to top it all off, was the King of Fruits that is durian served in santan. An excellent blend of the strong pulsating taste of the durian drowned in the richness of santan. We were sold.
Sago Biji Gula Melaka, Pulut Hitam and Durian Santan
Just like four very well-fed kids, we were leaning on our backs at the final sip of the sweet desserts. And we were joined by the queen of the house, Chef Melba herself. It was an honor. Always warm and never short of a smile, we felt at home as we introduced ourselves and immediately complimented her for the happy tummies that were ours.
It was enlightening, listening to Melba’s insights on her philosophies of cooking. The notion of bringing home-cooked meals to the city is, to me personally, a noble act. City dwellers long for these meals that are cooked from the heart and prepared with love. It’s difficult to find proper traditional delicacies that preserve their heritage and history around here. We long for the experience of enjoying the food prepared. Every plate tells a story and Mel’s cooking had certainly told us its tales. She keeps it simple and serves it with love.
Apart from preserving culture in the form of cooking, Mel also puts forth a lot of effort in conserving traditions in other forms. The Patui card game, is one of them. Played as a family pastime, Patui is a game of cards that are portrayals of different characters that were contemporary in the older days. The icons in the game itself were from the different ethnicities surrounding the Malacca of yesterday. And Simply Mel’s is doing all they could to let it the game live today, and tomorrow.
It was hard leaving the restaurant with so much more to learn. Alas, we were the last guests for the day and the generous dinner had certainly made us four very sleepy. I did manage to bring home a taste of the place. It was a bottle of Mel's homemade kaya. And I couldn’t wait for breakfast the next day. Azalia brought home some Last Polka, the feel good ice cream. Famous for its unique, localized flavors of Salted Gula Melaka, Horlicks, Teh Tarik and Durian, Last Polka homemade ice creams are not to be missed.
So what have we learned, from our newly-acquainted Malacca Portuguese friends?
1) Multi-cultural food remains a universal language to be understood, and tasted by all. The blend of European and Asian flavors from this experience taught us of the beauty in the combination of the various spices and eclectic cooking styles of East and West.
2) We can’t wait for the next call to Beng Naki Kumi!
More photos here.
Simply Mel's website.
Simply Mel’s was nominated for the Time Out KL Food Awards 2011 in the Blogger's Choice category. Vote them here!
The above review was made possible by allMalaysia.info, the Star Online's travel and information portal. For more reviews, please visit allMalaysia.info's Restaurant Review section.
Thank you both for a wonderful writeup! So heartfelt, and we certainly feel the same way and want you back for more anytime you want! Big hugs! Aly, Mel and the team at Simply Mel's.
Great post. I've always enjoyed the food at Simply Mel's. My favourite is the keluak sambal and the salted fish pickle. :-)
Love your prosaic review, Asrif. It really does justice to Simply Mel's.
I wish more Malaysians of all races (re)developed the cross-cultural appreciation of the richness and diversity which Malaysia has to offer as you have.
Mark L, Singapore
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Busking Barefoot is the travel blog of Asrif Yusoff and Azalia Suhaimi.
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