Gluten-free Food Adventures in Melaka, Malaysia

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Quick links:
Restoran Nyonya Makko
Wild Coriander
Aunty Lee’s Peranakan Restaurant
Calanthe Art Cafe
Sayyid Antique & Cafe
Chicken Rice Balls
Nasi Lemak
Jonker Street Hawker Center
Assam Pedas
Weekend Night Market
Cendol
Ondeh Ondeh

Malacca (or “Melaka” in Melayu) is a small city on the west coast of Malaysia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site with historical colonial buildings in its center, a colorful river walk lined with restaurants, and a diverse array of delicious food offerings. These days, Malaysia’s population is a mix of the local Malay people together with Chinese and Indian populations. The food scene matches this eclectic mix, with influences from Singapore and Indonesia as well.

A notable example is Nyonya cuisine, which is said to be the food of the Peranakan people- the children of migrant Chinese workers that married with people from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The cuisine is one of the most famous in Melaka, and also one of the most delicious; a wide variety of flavorful sauces and spices have resulted from this cultural fusion. In my Nyonya explorations I sampled Lemak Laksa (fish cooked in a spicy, coconut pineapple sauce) and also experimented with Ayam Buah Keluak (a spicy chicken dish served with “black nuts”, which have been covered in ash and fermented for 3 months).

At times it can be hard to distinguish the origin. Many modern dishes have cross-cultural influences. Still, there are the Malay classics like Nasi Lemak – coconut rice served with peanuts, egg, and a spicy anchovy sambal, Assam Pedas – stingray cooked in a spicy sauce with galangal and tamarind, and for dessert there is always Cendol – shaved coconut ice with red beans, green rice noodles, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup.

Chinese foods also predominate the offerings plus, like most Malaysian cities, you’ll find “Little India”, packed with authentic Indian options. There are Thai influences and many Western choices too (you can easily find for pizza, yogurt, or pancakes if your having that craving). As a gluten-free eater I can’t attest to the full spectrum of foods, but fortunately, many of Malaysian food options are naturally gluten-free.

Eating gluten free meant I had to avoid most noodles, dishes with bread, and any food made with soy sauce or oyster sauce. Thus, my food selections don’t represent the full spread of selections, but I hope it provides a glimpse into the unique culinary offerings of Melaka and interesting options for gluten-free travelers.

1. Restoran Nyonya Makko

The exterior of Restoran Nyonya Makko may not entice the eyes, but open the doors and you’ll find a restaurant packed full of happy diners. It is known as one of the best places to experience authentic Nyonya cuisine. Its also quite affordable; I ordered the Lemak Laksa fish- a generous cut of fish cooked in a chili sauce with coconut milk and pineapple, served with rice. This cost 18 Ringitt (about $4.50), but in other restaurants of the neighborhood the price easily doubles. They may not focus on the presentation, but the taste was delightful. I found myself scraping up every last drop of the delicious sauce, which was balanced perfectly between the creamy coconut, spicy chilies, and sour pineapple. My meal affirmed the high reviews of this restaurant. Its located just outside of the historical center of Malacca (which can be a bit too touristic sometimes), so this could explain the authentic far and more reasonable prices.

Nyonya Makko Restaurant, Melaka, Malaysia outside
Restoran Nyonya Makko

Nyonya Makko Restaurant, Melaka, Malaysia inside Nyonya Makko Restaurant, Masak Lemak in Melaka, Malaysia

2. Wild Coriander

I found a picture menu for Wild Coriander among a stack of books at my guest house. I admired the colorful dishes that looked authentic, fresh, and…expensive. I visited anyhow and was pleased to learn that their delicious food offerings are actually quite affordable! I was escorted through the long restaurant, which stretches from street side to river side, and seated at a table surrounded by lovely green plants. The setting was really peaceful and the food was great. I ordered the Wild Coriander Special with beef rendang. It came with 4 kinds of rice- white rice, brown rice, yellow sticky rice, and blue WIld Coriander Restaurant outside, dining in Melaka, Malaysiarice (dyed with blue flowers). There was also fruit, pickled vegetables, half an egg, a spicy sambal, and possibly the best beef rendang I have ever tried. {Rendang is a type of curry from Indonesia with warm spices and coconut milk that is cooked down slowly into a thick sauce} Together with a cup of strong coffee, I was absolutely delighted.

It is also worth noting that the staff at the restaurant is super friendly. While I was eating, a young woman came to dine who also had some serious food allergies. They looked through the menu with her slowly to understand what she could and could not eat until they found a suitable option. A definite plus for people with food sensitivities/allergies.

Wild Coriander Restaurant, Riverside dining, Melaka, Malaysia

3. Aunty Lee’s Peranakan Restaurant

Aunty Lee's Peranakan Restaurant, Melaka, MalaysiaAunty Lee’s is a bit of a distance from the historical center, but I found myself passing by on bicycle after visiting the “Portugese settlement” of Melaka. I entered the restaurant and looked over the menu. I was craving seafood, but I quickly realized that would be out of my budget (fish for 40-50 ringgit!). Still, the staff was kind and I would have felt badly if I walked out. Scanning the menu something caught my eye – Ayam Buah Keluak : “Indonesian black nuts cooked with chicken chunks in a homemade ground chili paste. (The nuts used have been covered in ash for few months and then soaked for a couple of days before the fermented flesh is extracted, mixed with prawns, and stuffed back into the shell.)”

Of course I was thoroughly intrigued and could not resist to try (plus the chicken dishes were more budget friendly…) I placed my order and a short while later the owner appeared with the dish. She asked the waiter in Melayu – does she know what she ordered? He laughed and I smiled; I was excited to try. The dish appeared as described, chunks of chicken in a spicy sauce, with hard, black nuts that looked to me like mussels. She explained to me that I must hold the shell of the nut in one hand, while I dig out the contents with the other (among the usual utensils was a tiny fork for this purpose). I scooped out of the shell a black granular paste. It was pungent, but I liked it. There were earthy, charcoal flavors along with that sour, fermented taste. Mixed together with the spicy sauce, chicken, and rice, the medley was uniquely delicious. I could taste each component independently, but they also complemented each other perfectly. If you visit Melaka, please try this unique dish!

Ayam Buah Keluak, Aunty Lee's Peranakan Restaurant, Melaka, Malaysia

4. Calanthe Art Cafe

Calanthe Art Cafe, 13 Estates, Melaka, Malaysia, outsideA great place for fusion food and great coffee. The menu at Calanthe Art Cafe has Malay options, Nyonya foods, Western choices, and influences from Thai and Chinese cuisine. With affordable prices and options for every palette, its a popular place. Aside from their delicious food, they also have the best coffee selection in Melaka. Peek into their menu and you’ll see multiple pages strictly devoted to coffee! They have varieties sourced from each of the 13 states of Malaysia and each one has a truly distinct flavor. My favorites were the Kelantan (“traditional wood fire of Robusta beans. Strong bitter and charcoal burnt flavor”) and the Terengganu (“100% traditionally roasted Arabica beans. Medium rich and velvety”). In addition, you’ll also find a full espresso menu and special drinks blended with herbs!

They offer foods from a range of cuisines and make creative fusion dishes as well. I really enjoyed their Green Curry Laksa – a Thai take on Nyonya Laksa. If you visit on the weekends you can try their Nasi Lemak, which comes with beautiful yellow turmeric, coconut rice. {See: Nasi Lemak}. A great place for authentic foods and coffees, without spending so much.

Calanthe Art Cafe, 13 Estates, Melaka, Malaysia, coffee menu Green Curry Laksa, Calanthe Art Cafe, 13 Estates, Melaka, Malaysia

5. Sayyid Antique & Cafe

If not looking closely, one may stroll by this shop & restaurant, discounting it as just another local retail business. In reality, it is an authentic, local restaurant located within a colorful antique shop. Open for breakfast and lunch, the menu is comprised of 6 Nyonya, halal options.

Sayyid Antique & Cafe, Melaka, Malaysia, inside

The friendly couple running the restaurant kindly answered my questions concerning wheat-free options. I opted to try the Laksa with rice noodles- a classic dish in Nyonya cuisine, but with some interesting ingredients like fish balls and fish cakes. They look a bit like tofu in texture, but appear in the soup as flat strips or round balls. I usually avoid such ingredients because they may be held together by wheat flour. When I asked, they told me “tepung ubi” (cassava flour) was used in their preparation, but they also told me they didn’t make them there and couldn’t be sure. For this reason, I opted for a laksa without “cockles“, which I guess is what they’re called…

Sayyid Antique & Cafe, Melaka, Malaysia, antiques Sayyid Antique & Cafe, Melaka, Malaysia, menu Sayyid Antique & Cafe, Melaka, Malaysia, Laksa

6. Chicken Rice Balls

A well known food in Melaka is the “Famous Chicken Rice Balls”. The dish is so popular that it is not uncommon to see long lines of patrons, patiently queued for their food. The dish is exactly what is sounds like- rice shaped into balls, served with chicken. It also comes with a savory or spicy sauce for dipping. A part of Hainan cuisine, it is very popular with Chinese residents and Chinese tourists of Malaysia.

Chicken Rice Balls, Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia, Hainan

One afternoon i set out for a chicken rice ball lunch. I mentioned my quest to some other travelers, who were curious enough to join me in my pursuit. We passed by a few empty rice ball restaurants and joined the queue in what appeared to be the most popular choice.

Chicken Rice Balls Line, Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia (Malacca)Chicken Rice Balls, Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia (Malacca)

After experiencing the wait of the queue, alas, we were seated to enjoy the coveted dish. I opted to enjoy mine with the spicy dipping sauce because the savory one contained soy sauce. It was certainly not bad, but it did leave us asking why so many people waited in line for such a basic food. The chicken was tender, the rice balls were round, and the spicy sauce was good, but it was nothing extraordinary. I would recommend others to try the “famous chicken rice balls”, but don’t raise your expectations too high… it is what it sounds like.

Chicken Rice Balls Restaurant, Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia, Hainan

7. Nasi Lemak

Nasi lemak is a classic Malaysian dish found all throughout the country. It is a combination of coconut rice, fried peanuts, a spicy anchovy sambal, and egg. It is usually served with some cucumber on the side. An extra-special version adds fried chicken- creating a hearty meal for breakfast or extra hunger. Sometimes a small portion is packed in a banana leaf – ingredients are meddled together by hand for enjoyment on the go.

8. Assam Pedas

Assam pedas is one of the most popular dishes among Malaysian cuisine. Ask a Malay person for local food recommendations and they are sure to respond – “assam pedas!” In fact, there are large restaurants that serve solely this dish. The literal translation means “sour and spicy”. What is it? Fish in a spicy, red chili soup. Traditionally it is cooked with galangal and tamarind, but each restaurant has its own twist on the flavor. Different fish options are available, ikan pari (stingray) being the classic choice. Still, many restaurants offer other sea fish and in select restaurants you can choose fish eggs. While in Melaka I visited Assam Pedas Pokok Besar (“Sour Spicy Big Tree”- named for the massive tree in front of the restaurant). I was there with a Malaysian acquaintance who told me that restaurant was his favorite for the fish eggs. I was surprised by their appearance – they appeared as a granular, spongy mass in the red chili sauce. I ordered the stingray and it was really good and really spicy – i didn’t even need to add the accompanying sambal. It was served with rice, some sprouts, and half of a salted, pickled egg. Delicious.

9. Jonker Street Hawker Center

It was late, I had been riding my bicycle all day, and I was hungry. I rounded a corner away from the riverside and the lights of the Jonker Hawker stalls lit up in front of me. I scanned the food stalls which appeared a mix of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine. I opted for the seafood stall where I ordered squid and morning-glory with peanut sauce. The squid came in a delicious spicy curry sauce and the morning glory came… was tasty, but a little too “sweet and saucy”. I often avoid eating Chinese cuisine because they use a lot of sauces – soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce. Many have MSG (monosodium glutamate) and some have wheat. Often there is a lot of sugar, too. I had asked for no kicap asin (savory soy sauce), but forgot to request no oyster sauce. Whatever was in it made me feel a little under the weather. So those with sensitive stomachs and food allergies may want to avoid this place. Though I did enjoy the squid and this seems to be a safer option for the stomach. Even though I had a mixed experience, the place was crowded with hungry eaters from all kinds of backgrounds.

10. Weekend Night Market

Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Jonker street lights up into a festive marketplace. Mostly available are souvenirs and Asian retail goods, but you’ll also find some interesting foods. I chose to sample steamed egg in bamboo, some freshly cooked shellfish, and of course, rice based sweet treats. Explore some of the courtyards and side streets off of the market and you’ll find some delicious, authentic options.

Steamed egg with mushrooms and seafood, cooked in bamboo
Sweets made from sticky rice, rice flours, palm sugar, and coconut.
A seafood stand at the market
11. Cendol

You simply cannot visit Melaka without sampling this delicious dessert, which has actually been declared a “heritage food” by the Malaysian government. The dish is made with shaved ice, tapioca noodles, red beans, coconut milk, and gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup. A basic cendol will only cost you a few ringgit, or you can choose from special offerings; there are varieties with sweet corn, ice cream, or my personal favorite- durian! If you enjoy durian as much as I do, then you will love the combination of the flavorful, creamy fruit with the cold coconut milk and palm sugar.

I sampled cendol from a few different places, but the best I found was right in Dutch crossing. Its a tiny wooden stand, but flanked with many small tables on the riverside. You can tell it is a popular place, because it can be hard to find a seat!

12. Ondeh Ondeh

If you are in Melaka and you see cute little green balls dressed with shredded coconut- buy them, then eat them. These are the scrumptious “ondeh ondeh”, a dessert made from rice flour, palm sugar, and coconut. The rice flour dough is cooked with the pandan leaf, which gives the dessert its natural, bright green color. While still hot, the dough is rolled into little balls with a bit of palm sugar in the middle. It is then coated in coconut for the final touch. If you can, savor these treats while they are still warm; melted palm sugar will burst into your mouth as you devour them happily.


So that’s what I ate in Melaka, Malaysia! I hope that my stories help some fellow travelers find delicious food and provide some helpful tips for gluten-free eaters. Selamat makan (enjoy your food).

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