MakanHouse is possibly one of the most unassuming treasure troves you’ll find in KL – a repository of family recipes and a holding place for the cuisines of two cultures, Melaka Portuguese and Kelantanese. This small restaurant is so much more than it might seem at first glance.
Its rustic brick walls cradle much-loved antiques from the private collection of owners, husband-and-wife team Mark Felix and Samihah Mat Taib (known to all as Ming) – from the floral-painted Peranakan metal trays to the weathered wooden cupboard that houses the ulam for the lunchtime buffet, to the old doors that have found new life as shelves – there’s history everywhere you look, and so much charm.
At the same time, MakanHouse is a testament to the couple’s creative, can-do approach, breathing new life into old things – they did all the renovations themselves, installing the hanging rope swing that pulls up to one table, turning an old bathtub into a modish chair and rattan bubu fish traps into lighting fixtures, and combining old sewing tables and large floor tiles into distinctive tables.
A drummer for almost 35 years – including with 80s icons, country band Southern Reign and now with Bongga Bongga and Babuyramos – Felix, 50, grew up in Melaka’s Portuguese Settlement.
Parents Flora and Patrick Felix weren’t only good cooks at home – they spent 20 years spreading the culinary culture of the Melaka Portuguese community as guest chefs at various restaurants and hotels.
“I have nine siblings, and they all cook except the youngest two,” said Felix. “In fact, my brother Clarence is the executive chef at the City Bayview Hotel Malacca. And at MakanHouse, my mother is here pretty much every day, running the quality control line!”
Ming, 41, has a similar story, of a childhood immersed in a love of food. “My mother has always sold nasi dagang back home in Kelantan, every Ramadan,” she said. Along with her sisters, the cooking became a family affair; Ming has spent almost 20 years in the F&B industry, but on the management side.
“I always thought Melaka Portuguese cooking is very labour-intensive – but then I saw the Kelantanese dishes like nasi kerabu and nasi dagang, and they are even more so!” said Felix. “Basically, we want to preserve as many of the old recipes as possible, some are in danger of disappearing.”
The couple has created a menu that celebrates their individual culinary heritages, and distills a wealth of family recipes and culinary history into a menu with wide appeal – which is why the list of mains is titled “Banda Hilir to Kota Bharu”. The cuisines are complementary too, with the Melaka Portuguese dishes being more redolent of spices, while herbs shine brighter in the Kelantanese dishes.
At MakanHouse, you’ll find either Ming or Felix cooking, assisted by another chef during the day – because that’s when the couple does their daily marketing.
“We don’t work with suppliers. I wanted the freedom to choose only the best, only what’s fresh, and that means I have to go and buy it myself,” said Mark. “It costs us in terms of time, but it’s not that much more expensive than going through a supplier.”
If that means sitting next to a gunny sack of buah keluak (mangrove nuts) at the market, sorting them one by one to find the right size and heft – so be it. Keluak curry is one of the most labour-intensive dishes in the Melaka Portuguese culinary repertoire – you need to soak the buah keluak for several days in ash-filled water, to render them edible. “We soak ours for three days, so that the keluak is fully-hydrated and moist,” said Felix.
The menu at MakanHouse showcases long, slow cooking with a confident and experienced hand, in addition to the careful curation of ingredients; rempahs and sambals are made from scratch.
Breakfast sees brown paper-wrapped offerings like nasi lemak (RM5), nasi dagang gulai ikan (RM12), and nasi kerabu with spice-fried chicken (RM15). A small lunch buffet combines dishes from both the Kelantanese and Melaka Portuguese repertoires – this is where you can also sample some dishes not on the ala carte menu, like the asam-tinged ambilla curry made with large hunks of salted fish, and the ayam masak lemak which is so richly flavoured, well-balanced and fragrant that you may well end up spooning every last bit of gravy from your plate.
It may be served in a set-up reminiscent of a chap fan (mixed rice) shop, but the dishes on the line showcase the same hallmarks of laborious prep and good ingredients as those on the ala carte menu.
From that menu, look out for the Commando Chips (RM10), which is rather filling for an appetiser, but worth the extra time at the gym later. It’s an ubiquitous dish, especially at small neighbourhood bars – but try MakanHouse’s version of the fried potato-ikan bilis-peanuts-sambal concoction, and you’ll see why a sambal made from scratch makes all the difference. “We don’t use things like cili boh here, we make our own chilli paste,” said Felix.
Those well-soaked buah keluak find themselves in an intense, thick curry (RM18) with a hint of tang; this sourness balances the earthy, somewhat bitter taste of the black pulp within the hard shell (an opening thoughtfully etched into each hard shell, so you can just scoop it out).
It’s an acquired taste for the uninitiated – but once you’ve acquired it, you’ll seek it out. The curry’s availability depends on whether the restaurant can get the mangrove nuts, so call ahead if you’re coming just for this.
A dulang (tray) of rice satisfaction awaits the hungry (you’ll need at least three people to finish it) – for just RM25, you get a platter of rice tinged blue with bunga telang, served with fish-and-kerisik-stuffed solok lada and spiced, fried chicken, a mound of finely-marbled nasi dagang with gulai ikan tongkol and white rice, with another piece of fried chicken. Ringing these are condiments ranging from salted egg halves to crunchy keropok ikan to the intense, fermented flavours of budu, to two different kinds of sambal nyiur (coconut sambal).
“Both are made with coconut, but the one with the nasi kerabu also has flaked fish, shallots and lemongrass, while the one with the nasi dagang is made with coriander seeds and shallots,” said Ming.
Debal curry (RM15) is a hallmark of Melaka Portuguese cuisine, and the version at MakanHouse is cooked with chicken. Its spices are as complex, layered and front-and-centre as you could wish, but the curry is not overly spicy.
The prawn and pineapple curry (RM22) is another good order – not as thick in terms of consistency, but with a good hit of flavour from the sweet, fresh pineapples, and made with fresh, bouncy prawns. The upside of a less-thick curry is that you can pretend it’s a soup, and indulge in a bit of slurping …
The baked fish here is a stellar example of the dish – always fresh, just-cooked so it retains a moist, juicy appeal, slathered in one of the house-made rempahs that bring to mind home and hearth.
Choose from a list including cencaru and slices of salmon, but the siakap (RM26) is a personal pick, because of its juicy, ample flesh and central bone. You can have the fish with “Portuguese sauce”, sambal, sambal petai or air asam.
Also on the menu, a dish which is less about the two main lineages traced, and more about a family favourite – salted egg sotong (RM18), swathed in a creamy, notably garlicky sauce studded with curry leaves.
“We’ve also got some Western dishes like pasta and a burger, for people who don’t want to eat spiced curries,” said Felix. Even here though, the familiy recipes get a look-in, with one of the pastas doused in debal curry.
To finish the meal, you can opt for a very good sago gula Melaka (RM7), its coconut milk bath tinged with a hint of salt to balance the sticky palm sugar syrup, or cendol, the glutinous green strands laced with durian (RM7) or not (RM5). Or, head to the small cake counter to check if Felix’s sister, Phyllis has baked her buttery sugee cake.
After all, MakanHouse is a family affair, in every sense of the phrase.
5 Jalan Bangsar
Tel: 03-2201 7997
Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am to 10pm and Mondays, 10am to 4pm