When the pandemic and the ensuing movement control order struck last year, Melaka native Melissa Chan began to think of ways she could help her community.
Chan is a Melaka culture buff, who until 2018, was the curator of the Baba & Nyonya Museum in the state. She is also the co-author (with her father Henry Chan Kim Cheng) of the book, Stories Of One Malaccan Family.
In putting together that book, Chan spoke to a number of families in the heritage city. Those interactions sparked an idea, which eventually became The Bendahari, a space dedicated to honouring the culture and heritage of Melaka.
Under the Bendahari umbrella, Chan also devised The Bendahari Markets which was initially meant to be an effort to develop new channels of distribution with local makers of culturally-rich Melakan products.
But when the pandemic hit last year, Chan decided to switch direction and funnel her energy into helping local food makers who were in dire straits.
Which is why The Bendahari Markets initiative has been spearheading deliveries of authentic Melaka delicacies – made by small businesses – to Kuala Lumpur every fortnight, to combat the lack of tourists and visitors who would typically support these businesses.
“During the first MCO last year, my friend and I were looking at how to work with and serve the community and realised we could do this by bringing food from Melaka to KL.
“Because in Melaka, the older generation of food business owners are not so Internet-savvy, so this was a way to bridge the gap and bring their food to more people during this difficult period,” says Chan.
The food on offer
Chan hand-picks the food businesses that are involved in this initiative, ensuring that the food is both authentic and up to scratch. She also only takes on businesses based in Melaka or those with founders who originally hail from the state.
To date, The Bendahari Markets has between 10 and 15 food entities on its roster, and Chan says they are constantly on the lookout for small businesses that need more income during this tough period.
While some of these makers have become permanent fixtures always available for delivery, others are rotated on a seasonal basis.
“We are definitely trying to represent the best of Melaka, as it is a heritage town. But we have to make sure we don’t have the same thing on the menu all the time. Like we can’t have two mee siam makers on the same delivery line-up, so we have to rotate,” says Chan.
Some of the delightful offerings that people in the Klang Valley can potentially order from The Bendahari Markets includes popiah, mee siam and ayam buah keluak from Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine, a small Melaka restaurant started by Nyonya Amy Koh to preserve her family’s heritage recipes.
Other things on the menu include Mrs Sim’s Nyonya bak chang (sticky rice dumplings), based on a recipe inherited from the founder’s late mother-in-law, who helped her with the business even at the ripe old age of 90!
Then there is also authentic Nyonya laksa made by Baba Colin; Eurasian-style fish pickle made by home cook Martin Theseira; and heirloom curry powder made to the exacting standards of an octogenarian home-maker.
The initiative even brings selected food from the famed Donald & Lily Nyonya Restaurant that traces its roots back to the 1970s when the owners operated a pushcart.
The eatery – a casualty of the pandemic, was sadly forced to close its doors recently.
Chan says part of The Bendahari Market’s aim is also to share the culture and heritage behind the food, which is why she frequently posts short narratives on each of the makers.
“It’s not just about the food, I think there is so much more behind the food – the makers, the stories that they have, the stories on the food. In the future, I plan to share the origins of many of these Melaka dishes and recipes too,” says Chan.
Chan often transports the food to the Klang Valley herself and says she is determined to continue the initiative as long as non-essential inter-state travel is not possible as every little bit of income goes a long way towards helping these small Melaka food businesses.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last and honestly the only thing that is moving is delivery systems. So I think helping businesses that may not be so comfortable on the Internet to transition is definitely needed. It just has to happen, which is why we are doing this,” says Chan.
Once the pandemic is over, Chan has her sights set on elevating the makers and their heritage food even further.
“I would love to have a place that people can come to and know the stories of Melakans and what their livelihoods are about. The physical space is already there, so this is what I imagine The Bendahari Markets to be in the future,” says Chan.
Apply foodpanda Voucher to save on your food delivery meals