For nearly half a century now, the name Donald & Lily was known to all & sundry as the go-to place for some of the best Malaccan street eats.
Back in the 1970s, Donald Tan Yew Chye and his wife, Lily Lee Ah Toy, first started off selling their wares from a tiny push-cart around Malacca’s historic Bandar Hilir old town quarter. They offered Malaccan-style Nyonya laksa, mee Siam, and nasi lemak.
In time, they gained such a loyal following for their food that people started coming to them instead. By then, Donald Tan had converted the back portion of their townhouse home into a restaurant - the front of their home looked out to the historic Malacca River, which had seen so much in the last five centuries: the invading Portuguese armada which toppled Malaccan sultanate in the 15th-century and ruled the city for 130 years, the Dutch who ousted the Portuguese and thereafter ruled Malacca for nearly two centuries , and finally the British, who gained control of Malacca with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The British then incorporated Malacca into the Straits Settlements, which also comprised Singapore and Penang, until 1946.
The back door of Donald & Lily’s home opened up to Heeren Street, a narrow historic thoroughfare which used to be the main residential area for the Dutch in the 16th- and 17th-century. The back door incongruously became the entrance to the Donald & Lily restaurant for many decades.
Donald Tan passed away towards the end of 2018, but his daughter, the very talented Jennifer Tan, stepped up to run the eatery, helped by her mother, Lily. Sadly, Donald & Lily had to close down in mid-2021 during the COVID pandemic lockdown as its business nosedived amidst border travel restrictions.
Then, in 2022, came The Bendahari Markets - a brainwave by young Malaccan entrepreneur and philanthropist, Melissa Chan. It was a one-stop centre for all things cultural in Malacca: handicrafts, arts space, performing arts, foodstuffs by traditional Malaccan artisanal food producers, … and, a Donald & Lily weekly pop-up restaurant.
We drove for 8 hours straight from Penang to Malacca last weekend - and went directly to Donald & Lily at the Bendahari for a very late lunch. The vivacious, energetic Jennifer Tan was her usual exuberant self - cooking, serving without missing a beat.
She served us chilled glasses of lemongrass-barley-and-lime juice, topped with sprigs of fresh mint:
For starters, we had the Rojak Tauhu - pan-fried pieces of hard tofu, and freshly-cut chunks of crunchy jicama, cucumber, rose apple and pineapple, all dressed in a caramel-shrimp paste sauce and spicy chili sauce, sprinkled with toasted white sesame seeds, and served with a squeeze of calamansi lime.
Then, it was onto Donald & Lily’s piece de resistance and claim-to-fame, the Nyonya laksa: squiggly noodles dressed in a thick spicy, coconut milk-rich gravy, then topped with shrimps, cockles, fish-balls, slices of fishcakes, julienned cucumber, and finely-chopped Vietnamese coriander. Each bowl of laksa was topped with a generous dollop of chili paste, to be stirred in for extra heat.
The rendition here is the best we’d had in Malacca!
We couldn’t resist ordering the other Donald & Lily classics:
Nasi lemak with chicken rendang - the version here was good, with the tasty, almost cloyingly-rich chicken rendang complementing the coconut milk-enriched rice perfectly. The obligatory garnishes of crisp-fried ikan bilis (anchovies), groundnuts, fresh cucumber slices and slivers of hard-boiled egg were all there, as was the “Malaccan touch” of a clump of sauteed kangkung (water spinach).
Otak-otak Burger - this was a more recent but popular creation. Malaccan-style otak-otak is firmer in texture compared to the custardy Penang version, and also their Thai (hor mok pla) or Cambodian (amok trei) counterparts.
At Donald & Lily, Jennifer turned the firm, spicy fish pudding into a burger filling, sandwiching it together with slices of fresh lettuce, tomato and cucumber. She then served it alongside a tangy “achar awak” (cucumber-carrot pickles).
Dessert was *Onde-onde - Nyonya-style mochi balls, filled with liquid Gula Melaka palm sugar, and coated with fresh, grated coconut. We recognized the version sold here at the Bendahari: it was from the legendary Dapur Cho Cho, Malacca’s leading kueh-makers.
Their rendition trumped those from any part of Malaysia or Singapore:
We also managed to sample some Malaccan-style pineapple tarts, called kueh tair, baked at the kitchens of the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, located just a mile away. The museum is owned by Melissa Chan’s parents, Henry and Nancy Chan, and is a must-visit for any visitor to Malacca.
Malaccan-style pineapple tarts are recognizable from the lattice design on top of each tart:
The very satisfying first meal for our visit this time to Malacca.
The Bendahari Markets
Lot 147 & 149, Jalan Bendahara, 75100 Malacca, Malaysia
Tel: +6011-2609 3921
Operating hours: 10am to 5pm, Thu to Sat.