I start my first evening in Melaka alarmingly far back in a queue. The doors of Capitol Satay open at 5.30pm, and by 6pm it's rammed buttock to buttock, with a line of hungry punters snaking out the door. I have barely sat down and had time to take in the charmingly tatty décor before I am whisked off to a refrigerated cabinet to choose my satay.

There are gargantuan prawns, delicate abalone, bouncy fishballs and knots of water spinach, all impaled on bamboo sticks. A cauldron of bubbling peanut sauce is brought over, infused with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and secret spices. As I dip my satay sticks into the sauce and wait for them to cook, I see a list of champion eaters stuck to the wall. Leading the ladies' leaderboard is Catherine from St Helens. She managed 81 sticks. Kudos to her. After chomping 30 I leave the restaurant with a cannonball of a belly, a bloated oaf stumbling into the tropical dusk.

After a morning spent trawling the galleries, temples and museums of the beautifully preserved Chinatown, I head past the iconic red Christ Church towards the new town to sample some Nonya fare. The Baba Nonyas came about through centuries of intermarriage between Chinese and Malays; their food is a celebrated Malaysian cuisine, a unique blend of flavours.

Ole Sayang is a twee hybrid of a provincial English café and a Chinese restaurant, complete with frilly pink curtains. The matronly waitress asks "What you want?" But I have no idea. With a twinkle in her eye she orders for me. Ten minutes later a banquet appears: sambal udang (prawns cooked with chilli and tamarind), plump otah otah (minced spiced fish grilled wrapped inside a banana leaf) and itek tim (duck soup with salted vegetables and sour plum), all lip-smackingly good. The food resonates with intense ingredients including soy, sugar, chilli and sour tamarind.

In a place blessed with such a rich cultural heritage as Melaka, the dinner table is where to begin unravelling the mysteries of the city.

Footprint's Southeast Asia Handbook 2009 is available now (£16.99)