Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of the most iconic street foods you’ll find in any big city of South East Asia.
In Malaysia, one of the areas with incredible and unique food is Melaka. While you’re there, check out one restaurant that’s always high on any list of local recommendations – the name is ‘Kedai Kopi Chung Wah.’
They make the most amazing rice balls, and when pairing a plate of these with the great local-style Hainanese chicken recipe – its food worth traveling for.
It would be quite an understatement to say that Melaka is popular with tourists, but in this case, I am not at all only talking about our current day and age.
People from Asia, even all the way from Europe, have been coming in large numbers to visit Melaka since the middle of the 15th century!
Its unique geography is what brought people here first (the Straights of Malacca), and thankfully, when ocean ships from China finally made it here, they were the ones who brought the most when it comes to influence on local food.
And oh, what beautiful food it is.
**Hainanese chicken rice is not Peranakan* food, but it is something the Chinese have brought to South East Asia.
Note:* While chicken rice is from Hainan, Melaka (and Malaysia as a whole) is home to many other foods worth traveling for. Be sure to check out the unique Peranakan and Nyonya cultures, for culture and for cuisine, you can learn about their food using these other articles (click those links above).
Hainanese Rice Balls
Obviously, its quite plain to see, that this is not the usual way that people are known to eat rice.
Investigating a new food is one of life’s biggest treats, and for this reason alone I was so happy to visit Kedai Kopi Chung Wah.
Beyond that however, as all humans are linked by our food, I always love to see the ways in which the world’s staple foods cook – and this rice is a new one for me.
Not only is it firm, but its even able to hold its ball shape well enough that a server can literally roll them onto a plate. Though this rice is white, actually even the color of white is different than the white rice I know from home.
Finally, the grains themselves are even hard to pick out, and if I didn’t know better, I would just assume that its made with glutinous or sticky rice instead.
How to Order
Walking into the restaurant, the ordering process is wonderfully simple.
Count how many people are in your party, and this determines the number of plates of rice balls.
Next, decide how many chickens you want, and whether you want half-chicken sizes, or whole (there are only these two choices).
You will be served so quickly that you may be finding a table along with the server who is carrying your plates of food, and – if you couldn’t already tell from the line out the door – this place is quite popular. This is a great restaurant to visit, but its not a place you can sit for hours.
Behind the Scenes
Although Hainanese chicken rice appears to be a fairly simple meal, this ultimate and iconic dish found all throughout South East Asia is one that takes a serious amount of prep time.
As those who love chicken rice have learned along the way, this is a perfect dish to prove the saying, ‘its the little things that count.’
Skipping steps here just won’t do, and this Melaka-born family of Chinese-Malay are working hard to continue their family traditions. They are making stellar plates of chicken rice and rice balls here, but let me take a few moments to give you some details, before we move to the food itself.
- Using a large frying pan to cook tons of garlic, the chef gives a base layer of pure smoky flavor by dry frying garlic using only salt. This is not a quick process either.
- These heavily-flavored smoking garlic then go into making the chicken stock, which is then used to both make the rice for rice balls, and used to slow-cook some of the other items here (for hours) before the restaurant opens its doors.
- I would guess from the wonderful depths of flavor too that these chefs are using charcoal in some part of the process – whether its to cook the rice itself, or to provide the fire that boils and cooks the chickens (and their organs, and blood, separately) – and finally only after these hours of prep time does the food you will order come up to the chopping block (where the customer can finally see this ‘simple food,’ food that takes so long to prepare).
Back to the food.
The chefs are chopping up their chickens fast, quick enough to match the rush. You may want to have one friend finding a table while another friend puts in the order.
When you sit down, taste the chicken while its still steaming hot. The skin on each piece is wonderfully soft, and it really has a lot of flavor from the garlic and smoke process I mentioned earlier as well.
I can’t say that the chicken is an ‘incredible’ dish on its own, but just wait until you taste the sauce that comes with it. Now that’s a blast of flavor.
Vinegar based, and heavy on the garlic side as well, I just love this slightly spicy, tangy, beautifully local flavor pairing. In my opinion, this is what is elevating the chicken meal from good, to great.
The most beautiful part of all of this to me, is that this is a dish that I know so well from China, but they’re pairing it here with a sauce that is so purely and perfectly Malay.
If the restaurant wasn’t so busy, I was actually thinking of asking them to maybe even teach me a few secrets (so I could make it at home myself), I couldn’t get enough of that dipping sauce.
Finally, the famous item at Kedai Kopi Chung Wah, the thing that draws the customers in – the chicken rice balls.
This rice is just incredible, unique in both appearance and flavor, and wow does it smell great.
The smell at first is a bit smoky, and as I have never had it before, honestly my first thought was that they make it using the harder edges of over-cooked rice that often seem to stick to the bottom of my rice-cooker pan. That’s the same texture (one of the best parts!) of the rice balls on your plate.
They pair perfectly with your chicken of course, and I couldn’t help but think that this was also the first time for me to see a dish of Chinese food that would work perfect for backpacking – picnics and hiking, Asia style!
Note:* And after doing a bit of research online, you can learn that these were first made by Hainanese families wanting to take a picnic into the hills. Spending time with your friends and family is great, but of course its always better with food. These rice balls are perfect little traveling snacks, and I am thankful for the Hainanese to share their ideas with all of us, bringing this wonderful food abroad to Malaysia.
Like the name (‘kopi,’ which means ‘coffee’ in Bahasa Malay language), you might notice that the shop closely resembles a cafe.
It is very popular here to order ice coffee with a meal, but of course being Chinese, the tea is also great.
The amount of visitors here can vary, but its always going to be high. You will be quite lucky to not have to stand in a line for at least a few minutes, so try to get here as early as possible (the restaurant does open promptly at 9am).
Their location is right across the flower-filled bridge, on a corner facing Jonker street, the most well-known street for walking in Melaka. Even so, I would say it is very much still worth a visit to Kedai Kopi Chung Wah, their unique and delicious meal of chicken rice balls is worth the wait indeed.
Just be careful if you try to park nearby, because the lines on the road (in our experience) do not actually make things clear. (On that note, here is another article from a fun time renting cars in Asia)
Thanks for reading, and we wish you a wonderful trip in Malaysia.
If you enjoy the beaches of South West Malaysia, then please let me recommend a trip to North (Kelantan and Terangganu) as well, for some out-of-this-world local cuisine. This is also home to the most incredible food of fermented durian, called Tempoyak, and I would book a ticket to go back right now if I could…
Name: Kedai Kopi Chung Wah
Location: (Google Maps)
Hours: 9am to 3pm on Weekdays, 9am to 4pm on Weekends
Prices: Our entire meal came to 28RM (US$6.77)