By Melissa Duis
Domestic tours may often be unfortunately perceived as less exciting than those to foreign lands, but the ancient vibe of Malacca always has its way of surprising the average sightseer, even one that is local to Malaysia. When an unplanned excursion to the Portuguese Settlement of Ujong Pasir, Malacca was added to the itinerary – much to the slight disarray of the day’s tour guide — an unexpected chance awaited us.
As we entered the Portuguese Settlement and approached the locals, two friendly men who managed the museum, and gave their first names as Jerry and Christopher duly rose to the occasion; for behind them, the Portuguese Heritage Melaka Museum had just caught our eye. Dainty from the outside but homey and charming on the inside, the marvellously modest doors of the museum were opened to us for what we thought would be an ordinary history lesson.
Upon entering, we were reconciled with the renowned crab which bore a cross on its shell, blessed by St. Francis Xavier: the Malaccan Portuguese forbade each other to dine on this said crab ever since that miraculous incident. More mementos caught our minds’ eye but the most indelible mark was made by none other than a few simple home recipes of our Malaccan Portuguese hosts.
The Malaccan Portuguese culture is so amalgamated in nature that its provenance may very well be likened to a quilt passed down the hands of progenies from layers of generations. And along with that wealth of culture and history, their recipes have also taken interesting turns to tease the palates of many curious travellers then and now.
When we first arrived, our hosts forewarned us that we wouldn’t leave without stopping by the food section and true to his word, after his 20 minute tour around the bonny museum, some attractively packaged jars and bottles caused us to stop a while before making our final exit.
We were treated to a brief explanation and curious sight of warm reds and oranges that were neatly tucked away in glass containers. Upon closer attention and inspection we learnt that these were 3 types of pickles and a special concoction of Cincalok specific to the Malaccan Portuguese community.
The three types of pickles were mango, fish and roe pickles coated in a rich hue of red that was reminiscent to another popular Malaccan dish – Devil’s Curry. We walked away with one of each of the pickles and one bottle of Cincalok. Aside from a list of “how-to” on enjoying our purchases, our host also told us that their special mix of Cincalok was spiked with alcohol – a friendly warning to those who don’t consume alcohol.
Home again, and this average Malaysian sightseer wastes no time in digging into her newly acquired possessions. Holding on to every word of our Malaccan Portuguese companions, I try every single pickle on steaming hot, white rice. And obediently (as per Jerry and Christopher’s suggestion), I prepare a full teaspoon of the Cincalok with one lime, one shallot and one big chilli.
Another recipe for the Cincalok is an omelette prepared as below:
Beat one egg with a teaspoon of Cincalok and fry with shallots.
The verdict: Fantabulous, scrumptious, sumptuous and bud-tantalizing. The pickles primarily have a sweet and sour flavour to them but have different degrees of acidity. Their flavours consistent with whether the main fodder is fish, roe or mango but one thing for sure is these pickles are bursting to the brim with seafood goodness. As for the Cincalok, its freshness and zest brings you as close as possible to a fisherman’s feast.
For a place so entrenched in historical importance, it is commendable how the Portuguese Malaccans have held on so steadfastly to their ancestors’ ways, down-to-earth and as pristine as any community can get in today’s modern age and yet keeping fully abreast with today’s know-how. I suppose at the end of the day, any good Portuguese Malaccan knows that to enjoy a good traditional meal is like reconciling past and present in one yummy sitting.
This article has been edited for The Weekly Echo and was first published in The Malaysian Insider on April 10, 2014